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According to one definition found online, Capharnaum means a “disorderly accumulation of objects.” Although that’s a fantastically uncommercial title for a movie, the concept suits this latest work from actor-writer-director Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?). She’s made up a grab bag of ideas and plot elements that work surprisingly effectively as a melodrama with a message. Several messages, in fact, all illustrated through the ordeals suffered by 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a child fighting to survive in the slums and shanty towns of Lebanon. Although the narrative is structured through a highly unbelievable instigating conceit — Zain is trying to sue his own parents in court for giving him life in the first place — Labaki lures such outstanding performances out of the almost entirely non-professional cast and sketches such a credible view of this wretchedly poor milieu that the flaws are mostly forgivable.
Labaki and casting director Jennifer Haddad have sought actors whose life stories track closely to the backstories of the characters they’re playing. That means star Al Rafeea really is a kid who had until recently been working, per the press notes, as a delivery boy since the age of 10, while Cedra Izam, the girl who plays his 11-year-old sister, is a Syrian refugee who was discovered while selling chewing gum in the streets of Beirut, and so on.
But such parallels between life and art aren’t enough on their own to account for the felt authenticity of the performances. It takes a director with genuine empathy, patience and rapport with performers, backed by enough budget to shoot hundreds of hours of footage (the film was made over six months) in order to make a work this emotionally persuasive.
Inevitably, there will be doubters who won’t feel so won over, who will yawn and invoke parallels with films like Slumdog Millionaire and other works of so-called “poverty porn” and mock the pile-up of misfortune heaped upon the hero and his friends. Reactions will depend on each viewer’s unique levels of compassion and cynicism. I do know that by the end, both I and the total stranger sitting next to me were sniffling and sharing a packet of tissues between us.
Structurally picaresque, the story starts in a courtroom into which Zain is led in handcuffs, having been arrested for stabbing “a son of bitch” as he describes him. It’s revealed that, with support from his lawyer (Labaki herself, taking an onscreen backseat), he hopes to sue his parents — mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and father Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) — for giving him life in the first place when they couldn’t offer him even a minimal level of care, safety and affection.
Zaid’s parents are so poor they couldn’t afford the fees to register his birth, which means he can’t get a state I.D. card and is therefore effectively a non-person, unqualified to get a passport, attend a school or even get medical assistance at a hospital in case of an emergency. This lack of papers is a crucial theme in the film and an issue some audiences may fail to grasp the significance of, creating a potential messaging problem in some offshore markets.
Raised in a filthy hovel in a crumbling concrete high-rise, Zain, as one of the older kids in the family, is forced to work in order to feed himself and his siblings. He makes deliveries for a local grocer, a man with a sinister interest in Zain’s little sister Sahar. When his desperate parents effectively sell Sahar off to the grocer, Zain runs away to a coastal town. A chance encounter on a bus with a slightly addled Armenian dotard dressed like Spider-Man, or Cockroach-Man as he prefers to call himself, leads to Zain sleeping at a beachside amusement park.
There he meets Ethiopian immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a kindly soul who is barely better off than Zaid. Rahil is hiding the existence of her 1-year son Yonas (played by unbearably cute baby girl Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, whose own real-life parents were temporarily deported during filming) from both employers and the authorities (she keeps the kid in a shopping cart while at work). Living in a shack made of corrugated plastic, detritus and rust, she is trying to save up enough cash for a new forged I.D. card on offer from shifty souk trader Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh). Rahil takes in Zaid who proves to be a surprisingly resourceful and adept babysitter for Yonas, whom he passes off as his brother.
The film detours away from Zain in order to follow Rahil and her travails for a while, only to swing back suddenly to Zain when Rahil inexplicably fails to return from work one day, forcing the prepubescent child into increasingly desperate measures to keep himself and Yonas from starving to death. But while the trajectory looks unrelentingly grim, Labaki punctuates the ordeal with moments of joy, warmth and humor, while her husband and producer Khaled Mouzanar’s orchestral score offers sweet notes of optimistic promise among the often discordant strings and feedback.
Those who won’t go along with the film’s earnest exploration of the depths of despair won’t be any more mollified by the last act’s many collisions of coincidence and grandstanding speeches. But it’s impossible not to appreciate the vigorous editing by Konstantin Bock and Laure Gardette that keeps things going at a clip that sweeps you up like a wave, and the way Christopher Aoun’s cinematography, often interspersed with breathtaking drone footage, shows off Beirut in all its squalid splendor.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competiton)
Production: A Mooz Films presentation in association with Cedrus Invest Bank, with the participation of Sunnyland Film Cyprus, in association with Doha Film Institute, KNM Films, Boo Films, The Bridge Production, Synchronicity Production, Loverture Films, Open City Films, Les Films des Tournelles
Cast:Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Cedra Izam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Nadine Labaki
Director: Nadine Labaki
Screenwriters: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Kesrouani, Georges Khabbaz, Khaled Mouzanar
Producers: Khaled Mouzanar, Michel Merkt
Executive producers: Akram Safa, Fouad Mikati, Candice Abela, Samer Rizk, Georges Sarraf, Sylvio Sharif Tabet, Ray Barakat, Chady Eli Mattar, Antoine Khalife, Joslyn Barnes, Danny Glover, Wissam Smayra
Co-producer: Pierre Sarraf
Director of photography: Christopher Aoun
Art director: Hussein Baydoun
Costume designer: Zeina Saab Demelero
Editors: Konstantin Bock, Laure Gardette
Music: Khaled Mouzanar
Casting: Jennifer Haddad
Sales: Wild Bunch
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