It takes a fair measure of nerve for a kid, even one who has been badly neglected, to sue his parents for bringing him into the world. But Zain, the main character in Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's harrowing Capernaum, is more than equal to the task.
Getting great performances from kids can be tricky, but Zain Al Rafeea, who plays the endlessly enterprising 12-year-old at the movie's center, convinces us that he can fend for himself. Untrained as an actor, Al Rafeea holds Labaki's film together with foul-mouthed pluck and a determination that simply won’t quit.
Filmed in tangled streets of Beirut, Capernaum works on us because it's impossible not to fear for young Zain as he negotiates problems no kid should have to face. Zain attacks them with inspiring courage. He has so much heart that our hearts break just watching him.
Zain runs away from his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) after they marry off -- i.e., sell -- his 11-year-old sister Sahar to their landlord's son. Labaki takes us into a world so desperately depraved kids can be sold.
Amid the bustle of the city, Zain establishes a relationship with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee who puts Zain in charge of her one-year-old son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) when she goes off to work -- all the while hoping that she won't be caught by the police and prosecuted as an illegal.
The trio creates an impromptu family in a Beirut shantytown. But when Rahil fails to return home one day, Zain is left on his own. Again, we're fearful for his future. Zain leaves the confines of the hovel where Rahil has settled by carting Yonas around in a tub attached to a skateboard. Zain's affection for his charge is obvious and it warms the movie.
Labaki tells the story in flashbacks that flow from the courtroom proceedings. Zane initiated the suit against his parents while being held as a prisoner for a stabbing -- albeit one in which the "victim" hardly can be seen as blameless.
Nearly everything in Capernaum unfolds against a backdrop of urban squalor, criminal activity, and street hustles. Zain's family supports itself, in part, by smuggling drugs into a prison where one of their incarcerated offspring sells them to his fellow inmates. To call what happens to the movie's children "neglect" insufficiently describes the cruelties and indifference they face.
Capernaum has been nominated for an Oscar in the best-foreign-language-film category. Whether it wins or not, it stands as an important entry into the film liturgy on kids who must fight for every scrap of life they can find.