Capernaum: like Oliver Twist but set in Lebanon

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Roxy Theatre

Opens February 15

This award season features a stronger-than-usual slate of foreign language films. While Roma seems unbeatable, the Lebanese-made Capernaum makes a strong case to become a sentimental favourite.

That said, Capernaum’s opening is a bit cloying: Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a 12-year-old jailed for a crime we’re not privy to who sues his parents for neglect and straight-up incompetence. Zain has a case: flashbacks show him  forced to work odd jobs and commit petty crimes for his terrible parents. Zain is also the de facto guardian of his younger sisters, and he’s not allowed to go to school. Sucks to be Zain.

When Zain’s god-awful parents sell one of their daughters to a storekeeper as a child bride (a bad omen for the other girls in the house), the boy runs away. He finds shelter with an Ethiopian refugee who has her own baby, but while she’s far more nurturing than Zain’s mother, he’s still trapped in an untenable position of responsibility. And his street smarts can only get him so far.

One could argue Capernaum (“chaos” in French literature) comes dangerously close to poverty porn. One might respond that the film’s grim situations are drawn from real-life situations, often inspired by the lives of the film’s non-professional actors (Al Rafeea, for example, is a real-life refugee). In fact, most of the movie’s child performers come from situations of extreme risk — no money, no one to look after them, that kind of thing. Heavy.

Capernaum is at its best when director Nadine Labaki goes for Italian neorealism (Bicycle Thieves comes to mind). That’s when Zain’s resourcefulness and disenchantment makes him easy to root for, if not totally likeable. Capernaum’s bookends, however, come across as hokey. A Deus ex Machina can be effective used in moderation, but three back-to-back miraculous coincidences is a bit much.

Worth mentioning: Labaki has come under fire for her film’s realism — not Zain’s hardships, but the way Lebanon’s hierarchies and repressive apparatus are portrayed. The naysayers have a point. They’re known for perpetuating racial division and anxiety over refugees, but the police and local TV come across as heroic.

Still, Capernaum has many virtues. Think of it as a glance toward reality, not a documentary. If you want to know more about Lebanon, there’s plenty of material out there to see and read.