Capernaum is a city name found in the New Testament where Jesus was said to have lived and perfomed more miracles than any other place. Today, the land where Capernaum used to stand is Lebanon, and after seeing Beirut-born director Nadine Labaki’s searing drama Capernaum, a viewer might wonder whether she chose that title to call forth a new redeemer to help the suffering poor whose stories she tells.
A host of first-time actors is ably led by young Zain Al Fareea. He plays Zain, a 12-year-old boy who looks much younger, no doubt due to malnutrition, and whose parents are abusive and despairing. They marry off Zain’s beloved younger sister, Sahar, to a man three times her age, prompting Zain to run away and setting the stage for the climactic tragedy that will send Zain to jail and, in a strange twist, prompt him to sue his parents for giving him life but no chance to be the good person he knows he was meant to be.
The film has a quality to it that reminded me of the Oscar-winning documentary Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red-Light Kids (2004). The sheer struggle for survival in the slums of Beirut is heartbreaking, and watching Zain try his best to care for his siblings and then the 1-year-old son of an undocumented Ethiopian woman who takes him in shows his heart and will are strong, but no match for the uncaring world of the adults around him.
Capernaum is an angry cry, through the character of Zain, for people to pay attention to and do something about the misery of others. Labaki’s greatest achievement may be that she made a beautifully crafted film with such a deep understanding for her untrained actors that it’s nearly impossible to tear our eyes from the screen or forget what we’ve witnessed.