A common piece of filmmaking advice is to avoid working with children and animals as much as possible. Nadine Labaki is clearly not a rule-follower. Not only is Capernaum populated by a litany of child actors, its third-billed star, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, is a one year old baby. That Capernaum works at all is something of a minor miracle – that it’s a fantastic, moving fairytale that hardly wastes a moment shows a director of staggering skill. A strong entry into the Foreign Language awards race, Capernaum’s tender heart and kid-led sense of adventure could also give it a mainstream appeal that these sorts of films rarely achieve.
Framed by a court case in which 12 year old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is suing his parents for their very bringing him into the world, Capernaum flashes back and forward in time to show what kind of circumstances could force such a bleak statement from a child. Living in a cramped apartment, Zain already doesn’t get on with his parents, and when they sell his 11 year old sister as a bride for their landlord’s adult son, he flees in devastated disgust. A life on the Lebanese streets follows until he is taken in by Ethiopian migrant worker Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who gives him food and shelter in exchange for caring for her tiny son Yonas (Bankole, who is actually a girl).
Zain is a great character, and the performance that Labaki coaxes from Al Rafeea is nothing short of extraordinary. He’s got the foul mouth and self-confidence of the Florida Project kids, but behind this bold façade lies a boy who already understands far too much about what adults do to children. Fundamentally, Zain is born to be a big brother. He cares deeply for his sisters, and takes his duty of care towards Yonas very seriously.
Obviously, Bankole is too young to be acting, but the trust and love she has for Al Rafeea is amazing to see. Yonas’s eyes follow Zain around constantly, and when circumstances force the pair to leave the relative comfort of Rahil’s home, this bond becomes even more heart-warming. Zain trundles Yonas around in a cooking pot strapped to a skateboard, an image at once hilarious and tragic and completely iconic. Aerial shots get across just how cramped, maze-like, and chaotic the cities that Zain traverses are, and it activates something primal in your anxiety for the two tiny children trying to navigate these hostile environments.
But Labaki also makes plenty of room for hope and laughter. Moments of whimsy and sentiment are always earned, enhancing rather than contrasting the frightening darkness found elsewhere. Even though his parents are awful people (his father reacts to the hideous fate of one of his daughters with nothing more than anger at how it’s damaged his reputation), Zain runs into plenty of caring adults who go out of their way to help him and Yonas as much as their limited resources will allow. These moments are always joyous, and see the film through some slower spells in which a few too many beats get repeated.
A recurring pair of fairground workers are consistently hilarious as they ineptly but good-heartedly attempt to aid Rahil. Their scheme to win her a new work permit is scuppered by stupidity, making for a darkly funny scene of failure, but the fact they even try, and go to great efforts, is enough to restore some faith in humanity. Capernaum is a warm and cosy adventure that knows just how to deploy sentimentality, with enough real world sting to keep it from being overly soppy.