Capernaum: Growing up too fast in Lebanon

A Drama
Written by Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany, Nadine Labaki, & Khaled Mouzanar
Directed by Nadine Labaki

Zain is probably about 12. No one knows for sure. He’s on trial for stabbing and wounding a man. He’s also suing his parents in court. No, not for neglect, but simply for bringing him into this world of suffering.

The world depicted in Capernaum is harsh indeed. This is Beirut during relative peace, but it’s still a struggle to survive. Parents exploit or neglect their children. Kids soon learn how to do for themselves, and that’s not by making an honest living. And no matter how worse off you are, you can find someone suffering far more.

The aforementioned lawsuit is a gimmick – something that takes up very little of the film’s runtime. It’s a useful device to hang the story on. Mostly, the movie follows Zain’s last few months before the trial.

When we first meet Zain (a very magnetic Zain Al Rafeea, with a surprising range for his age), he’s playing in the streets of Beirut, imitating the adult behavior he sees. In Lebanon, that means playing with hand-made wooden toy assault rifles.

He’s smart, wily, and sneaky. Living with cruel-to-indifferent parents in a too-small apartment, he had to learn how to get by on his own.

The only person he cares about is his sister, Sahar, about a year younger than him. When their parents sell her into marriage (remember this is an 11-year-old girl), Zain can stand them no longer and runs away from home.

He’s taken in by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian single mother far poorer than Zain’s parents. She lives in a rundown shack that appears to have been made by whatever was lying around. Unlike Zain’s parents, she loves her baby deeply. Zain needs a home, and Rahil needs someone to take care of her baby while she’s working.

Then one day she doesn’t come back. With dwindling resources and no hope of a legal income, Zain must find food, shelter, and water not only for himself but for a toddler, as well. In one heart-breaking scene, he tells the child to stay on the street, and the toddler, of course, follows him.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Zain is a creature of the streets who has learned how to connive and steal for his own survival. And like the Tramp, he has a kind streak as well as a cruel one. In fact, there are moments in Capernaum that reminded me of Jackie Coogan in The Kid.

The difference, of course, is that Capernaum isn’t a comedy. The horrors of life are not leavened with laughs.

Director Nadine Labaki used non-professional actors playing characters similar to themselves (note that Zain is both the name of the actor and the character). She allowed considerable improvisation on the set.

In a few decades, Capernaum just may sit with Bicycle Thieves and Pather Panchali among cinema’s masterpieces about poverty.

By the way, the word Capernaum means chaos. The Japanese word Ran, the title of Akira Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of King Lear, also means chaos. But one is the chaos of war, and the other of poverty.

Capernaum  opens Friday.