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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Capernaum, Nadine Labaki’s hectic and heartbreaking new film, borrows its name from an ancient city condemned to hell, according to the Book of Matthew, by Jesus himself. The word has since become a synonym for chaos, and modern Beirut as captured by Labaki’s camera, is a teeming vision of the inferno; a place without peace, mercy or order. The sources of its remarkable energy are Labaki’s curiosity and the charisma of her young star, Zain al Rafeea, who plays a boy named Zain.
When we first meet 12-year-old Zain, he is in jail for a violent crime and then in court. He has brought suit against his mother (Kawthar al Haddad) and father (Fadi Kamel Youssef) for bringing him into the world and failing to care for him or their other children. The courtroom scenes that frame the tale of Zain’s ordeal at home and his adventures once he runs away serve a few distinct purposes. They offer a measure of comfort — a guarantee that whatever horrors he endures, our hero will at least survive — and also a dose of semi-satirical social critique.
The kindly, avuncular judge and the officious lawyers representing Zain and his parents speak a language of reasoned inquiry and civic enlightenment. Their rhetorical pomp is meant to show the benevolent, problem-solving authority of the state, which has the power to discipline and protect its citizens. Everything that happens outside the court makes a mockery of this. You might see a trace of Huck Finn in Zain. He’s also, in circumstance if not in attitude, like a Dickens hero navigating a metropolis where poverty and cruelty threaten to overwhelm kindness and fellow feeling. That they don’t quite succeed is testament to the strength of Labaki’s humanist convictions and also to her instincts as a storyteller. Capernaum, goes beyond the conventions of documentary or realism into a mode of representation that doesn’t quite have a name. It’s a fairy tale and an opera, a potboiler and a news bulletin, a howl of protest and an anthem of resistance.