In our recent discussions of seeking out more diversity among movie directors, there’s a name that needs to be included in the conversation as one of the best women directors working today: Nadine Labaki, the Lebanese actor and filmmaker behind the searing “Capernaum.”
“Capernaum” is Labaki’s third film and is a stunning departure from her female-centered “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?”. The new film — which won the Jury Prize at Cannes last May, and is nominated for the Academy Award in the Foreign-Language Film category — is a gritty, uncompromising look at life on the mean streets of Beirut through the eyes of a child hardened by his experiences.
Labaki introduces her main character, 12-year-old Zain (played by Zain Al Raffea) in a courtroom. He’s been accused of a violent crime, but he’s also suing his mother, Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad), and father, Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef), for the crime of giving him life in the first place. His explanation to the judges form the flashbacks through which Labaki (who has a minor role as Zain’s lawyer) tells the boy’s harrowing story.
Zain is one of the older kids in Souad and Selim’s tiny, filthy apartment, and he’s forced to skip school to work for the family — mostly making deliveries for a local grocer. Zain assigns one job to himself: To protect his beloved little sister, Sahar, and never letting their parents know that Sahar is having her first period. That, Zain knows, will be a sign to marry Sahar off to the leering grocer.
When the parents do send Sahar away, Zain runs away, eventually landing at a beachside amusement park. He meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian immigrant who mops floors there, and is hiding her baby boy Yonas from her employers and the authorities. Rahil aims to raise money to buy a fake ID from Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), a shady dealer in a souk. Zain agrees to babysit Yonas while Rahil works, in exchange for lodging in Rahil’s shanty shack.
But when Rahil unexpectedly doesn’t come home one day, Zain finds he must scramble to keep Yonas from starving — while also keeping hidden from Rahil’s landlady and from Aspro, who knows there’s big money in trafficking a baby to adoption dealers.
“Capernaum” isn’t unrelentingly depressing, as Labaki squeezes out small moments of joy through the hardship in Zain’s hard-knock life. It is a serious-minded movie, though, and Labaki has plenty to say about how society treats our smallest and poorest members.
Thanks to the nonprofessional actors in the cast, particularly its 12-year-old lead, and a breakneck pacing, “Capernaum” sweeps the audience up in the plight of young Zain, whose resolve and even hopefulness stay steady in the face of every bad thing life throws at him.
Opened Friday, December 14, in select cities; opens Friday, February 15, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG-13 for language and some drug material. Running time: 126 minutes; in Arabic with subtitles.