In a year of exceptionally fine foreign-language films (Roma, Burning, Cold War, Shoplifters), Capernaum has a way to go to earn a spot in that major league. But the film has an undeniable emotional pull. Leabnese filmmaker Nadine Labaki takes to the slums of Beirut to follow the plight of Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old boy doing five years in jail for stabbing a so-called “son of a bitch.” Zain has another agenda now: He wants to sue his parents for bringing him into the world in the first place. With help from a lawyer (Labaki herself), Zain believes his suit will allow him to independently qualify for a passport, go to school and be treated for medical problems. His poverty-stricken parents had never registered his birth, the first step needed to earn a state I.D. card.
The title refers to an ancient city on the Sea of Galilee whose name is now a stand-in for anarchy and disorder — and that had been Zain’s everyday existence. The boy lived with his parents, Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) in an apartment of unadulterated squalor, where Zain and his siblings were regularly used to sell drugs. Their business turns to human trafficking when the couple decide to sell Zain’s 11-year-old sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam), to their landlord Assadd (Nour el Husseini). The price is a few chickens.
With the camera staying eye-level with Zain, we watch the boy take to the mean streets of Lebanon in desperation. At an amusement park, he is taken in by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian cleaning woman with no legal papers and a toddler daughter, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), who takes a shine to Zain. When Rahil goes missing, Zain and Yonas are left to their own devices in a world no children are meant to negotiate alone.
The sorrow inherent in this tale would be unbearable without the film’s flashes of humor and performances by a cast of nonprofessionals that are moving beyond measure. Capernaum suffers from being overly long and chaotic in structure, but there’s no mistaking its cumulative effect as an emotional powerhouse.