An Oscar nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, we learn about Zain, a 12-year-old boy who sues his parents for the “crime” of giving him life. Zain journeys from a streetwise child to hardened 12-year-old adult fleeing his negligent parents and surviving on the streets with his wits. He is serving a 5-year prison sentence for committing a violent crime, and seeks justice in a courtroom.
“Capernaum” means chaos, and this raw, hard-hitting film paints a grim picture of children living in squalor, left to fend for themselves, irresponsible parents who survive on handouts, and unscrupulous adults who take advantage of poverty-strapped people.
As powerful as Francois Truffaut’s New Wave masterpiece “The 400 Blows,” this bleak Lebanese film directed and co-written by Nadine Nabaki tells the harrowing journey of troubled Zain, a mere adolescent whose scummy parents make him work and not go to school. He runs away when his beloved sister Sahar is sold to a degenerate shopkeeper as a bride at age 11.
With his big brown sad eyes, Zain Al Rafeea delivers an emotional knockout of a performance as the fictional Zain -- a stunning portrait of a streetwise kid who grows up with the weight of the world on his weary shoulders. He is a Syrian refugee in real life.
Zain is rescued by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a kind Ethiopian woman who is an undocumented alien and is taken advantage of when she tries to get a permit. He cares for her infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), gets attached like a brother, in exchange for food and shelter.
The story is told in flashback style, with jail and courtroom scenes framing street life. It takes a little adjustment to determine what is happening.
The details of depravity are so genuine that you feel the despair and imagine the misery, and cinematographer Christopher Aoun vividly captures this sorrowful landscape.
Almost relentlessly dreary, “Capernaum” is tough to watch, but there are moments of poignancy, as Zain cares for his sister and the baby with tenderness and love. Hardened by the environment, the fact that he can still nurture tells volumes about the boy inside this wise old soul. What an unforgettable film.