A young boy, Zain, stands up in court in Lebanon. He has already done time for stabbing someone. Now he wants to sue his parents for giving him life. No one really knows how old he is, but a medical examiner estimates 12.
Nadine Labaki’s drama might first seem like a satire – small children are jailed; others are married. But while there are elements of didactic political fable, there’s a heartbreaking realism at the root of this portrait of Lebanese poverty, mostly shown from Zain’s point of view.
Magnetically portrayed by Syrian migrant Zain al Rafeea, the boy’s angelic looks suggest innocence but his angry, sweary outbursts betray a harsh childhood. This contrast brings bursts of humour, recalling the likes of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘The Florida Project’. But ‘Capernaum’ is a darker watch than either.
Most of the film takes place in flashback, tracing Zain’s route to jail via the slums of Beirut. He’s run away from home after one of his many sisters is sold to a leering local man. Furious at his world-weary parents, he finds a new mother figure in Rahil (Yordanos Shifferaw), an immigrant who’s hiding her baby from authorities, fearing deportation. The details of all three characters’ daily lives then become the film’s centrepiece, which moves at a leisurely pace. It’s quietly absorbing and fitfully shocking as we experience the sights, sounds and smells of the streets where a one-year-old child can wander around alone without anyone stopping to wonder why.
Labaki’s closing masterstroke is to subtly shed light on the perspective of Zain’s parents, giving this slow-burner a finale with a powerful plea for justice and compassion.