Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is built on a sky-high concept that would have been perfect for a Jon Turteltaub comedy in the ’90s: what if a hard-done-by kid — can we get Jonathan Lipnicki? — sues his parents for not bringing him up properly? It’s such a delicious Hollywood-friendly conceit, but Labaki’s 2018 Cannes Jury Prize winner does something completely different with it: instead, using the courtroom scenes as bookends, Capernaum is a picaresque journey through Beirut streets, shot through with harsh realities and touching tenderness. Nothing in Labaki’s previous two films — 2007’s Caramel and 2010’s Where Do We Go Now? — have prepared us for this: it’s tough and unflinching, but drenched in buckets of empathy.
Capernaum — the word means ‘chaos’ or ‘disorder’ — opens with drone shots of Beirut buildings and stunning slow-motion images of kids running that suggests we are in poetic mode. But for the most part, Labaki writes the story of 12-year-old Zain in Dardenne-esque social realist prose. With abusive parents never registering him for an ID card and unable to stop his 11-year-old sister being sold to a seedy greengrocer for chickens, Zain goes on the run, a non-person in flight. He is given shelter by an illegal Ethiopian cleaner, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), and Zain becomes babysitter to her one-year old, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). When Rahil fails to return from work one day, Zain is forced into desperate measures to keep Yonas and himself alive.
The director's humanity keeps you onside.
If all this sounds like a journey into misery, it is leavened by moments of joy, warmth and comedy (look out for knock-off Spider-Man, Cockroach Man). The film’s strongest stretch sees the newly minted odd couple bonding and surviving on the streets. Labaki has a real feel for the dynamics between children, eliciting terrific performances from her young cast. Al Rafeea, discovered on the Beirut streets by casting director Jennifer Haddad, imbues Zain with equal parts cheeky swagger and vulnerability as he schemes and scams his way from slums to shanty towns. And Treasure Bankole is perhaps cinema’s most talented toddler, intuitive, engaging, adorable.
Labaki’s immersive, driving odyssey eventually gets repetitive and is perhaps overlong, but the director’s humanity keeps you onside. In the exploration of a timely, very specific identity crisis — who are you without papers? — Labaki’s film acknowledges the dire impossibility in Zain’s circumstances yet somehow finds pin-pricks of hope. And Zain dragging Yonas around in a plastic cart will be one of the images of 2019.