Capernaum: An Arabic-language Oliver Twist, but even more depressingly set in Beirut

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B

The title of Capernaum, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s tale of a 12-year-old Beirut boy who sues his parents, literally translates as “chaos.”

And it is certainly a chaotic, relentlessly depressing array of everything that could happen to a street kid and his few loved ones, covering forced marriages of young girls, abuse of illegal workers, the plight of Syrian refugees and the existential non-status of people who do not have “papers” to prove they exist.

The film, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, is currently on the shortlist for a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) becomes a homeless “guardian” to Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole)

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) becomes a homeless “guardian” to Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole)

It is natural to interpret Capernaum as a Middle-Eastern work of Dickens, with the protagonist Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) being a kind of Arabic-speaking Oliver Twist negotiating his way manfully through a world of exploitative lowlifes - including the movie’s own Fagin, a false-friend human trafficker named Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh).

Amid a cast of mostly non-actors, Zain begins the movie in a not particularly likeable way. We meet him in court, in handcuffs, where he allows he’s there for “stabbing a son of a bitch,” while announcing his intention to sue his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) “because I was born.” He drops the Arabic equivalent of F-bombs liberally, a “front” the movie then proceeds to explain in flashback.

When we then meet him on the street, Zain already understands the world far more than most 12-year-olds. He has disdain for his parents, who squeeze him and sisters into a tiny apartment they have somehow obtained for free, living off-the-books, the children’s births never having been registered.

He is closest to his 11 year old sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izzam), and is terrified for her when she has her first period, understanding that this means she is fair marriage game for a local shopkeeper (Nour El Husseini) who has clearly been fancying the child. (His suspicions are proven right when Sahar is literally sold off for chickens).

As barbaric as they are in their parenting, there are continued scenes, both in flashback and in court, where they protest that they are what they are because society has pushed them to the margins. It’s not clear whether Labaki wants us to think of them as villains in the piece, but they are a long way from sympathetic.

Enraged, Zain leaves home, supporting himself with fake prescriptions for painkillers that he uses to raise small amounts of cash. As happenstance has it, he is more or less adopted by a Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian illegal with fake papers and an undocumented toddler named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Zain becomes the boy’s de facto babysitter, and when the inevitable happens, his homeless guardian. Things do not get better from here.

In her most depressing movie to date, Labaki squeezes every bit of squalor out of the stained, crumbing former metropolis that is Beirut. She peoples the film with colourful characters, including an aged street vendor (Joseph Jimbazian) with a makeshift Spider-man costume who dubs himself “Cockroach Man.” And another street friend, a Syrian girl (Farah Hasno) trying to forge her way to Sweden, seems to exist merely as a plot device for Zain to imagine an unrealistic escape plan from the hell that is his life.

Meanwhile, the courtroom scenes – and how Zain attains a lawyer to facilitate his lawsuit - seem contrived next to the heightened realism of the street scenes. Capernaum is a movie with a lot of dramatic ideas and plot-points, worthy of a miniseries at least, squeezed into a two-hour sausage of misery.

Capernaum. Directed by Nadine Labaki. Starring Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Cedra Izzam. Opens Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.