Capernaum follows the forgotten street kids and scapegraces of Beirut

The film uses an inexperienced cast to depict life on the margins.

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The Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea, who has a sullen Sal Mineo pout and wild werewolf hair, was aged 12 and working as a delivery boy in Beirut when he was cast by the Lebanese director Nadine Labaki in Capernaum, her movie about the city’s forgotten street kids and scapegraces. That’s the same age at which Fernando Ramos da Silva was plucked from a São Paulo slum to play the title character in Héctor Babenco’s Pixote, the 1981 film to which Capernaum owes so much but from which it has learned relatively little. Babenco knew that his vignettes of poverty and depravity were shocking enough to be presented plainly, whereas for Labaki there is always room for another slow-motion sequence, a few additional cellos.

Still, the picture has a truthful centre in the form of its young star. He plays Zain, who is first seen suing his parents in court for bringing him into the world. This is easily the script’s worst idea, since it places the flashbacks to Zain’s hard-scrabble life within a narrative framework that beggars belief; no matter how gritty the film gets, realism will always be chafing against contrivance. These opening scenes also paint the boy as quite the art-house cutie-pie – never a bad thing for a foreign-language movie that is hoping to make a commercial crossover (just ask the makers of Cinema Paradiso), but rather less helpful for one that has aspirations towards toughness.

Before Zain flees he lives in a crummy apartment with his family. The best you can say of his life there is that it’s not dull. His mother keeps him and his younger siblings busy grinding up tramadol, then mixing the powder with water and soaking clothes in it; once dried, the garments are taken to Zain’s brother in prison, where they are soaked again and wrung out to make intoxicating shots.

The strength of Al Rafeea’s performance lies in its uncomplaining briskness: he makes Zain disarmingly matter-of-fact whether shielding his 11-year-old sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam), from a predatory shopkeeper or hawking home-made drinks to passers-by. The cinematographer Christopher Aoun is always there in the hubbub with his long lens to catch those moments which show how young the boy still is – a temporarily disabling sneeze, say, or the look of exhausted envy when he notices other kids on their way to school while he works. Then again, shooting 520 hours of footage over six months is bound to turn up some gold.

The catalyst for Zain running away from home comes when his parents marry off Sahar in exchange for a few chickens. It’s one of those harrowing scenes where our awareness of how potentially traumatic it must have been to shoot feeds into the on-screen horror: all those crying children and raging adults in a confined space. Hiding out in a fairground, Zain meets an Ethiopian cleaner, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who takes him back to her corrugated iron shack, which has hot and cold running sludge, and he becomes a live-in babysitter to her one-year-old son. Like Zain, whose parents were too poor to register his birth, Rahil is essentially non-existent. She lacks the funds necessary to buy herself a forged ID card, though a souk vendor who flogs them as a sideline accepts other forms of payment. Babies, for one.

Labaki directs the inexperienced cast sensitively, and mixes appalled commentary on the bureaucracy conspiring against the disenfranchised with the occasional indelible image: confined to a cell at one point while her baby is hungry at home, Rahil must squeeze the milk from her breasts, letting it spill down her fingers and on to the ground. And the dialogue is convincingly salty, such as the reason Zain gives for wanting to emigrate to Sweden: “You can piss from the balcony and no one will give you shit for it.” As tourist board slogans go, it lacks a certain finesse.

While things did not end happily for da Silva, the Pixote star who was shot dead by police at the age of 19, Al Rafeea’s prospects look much more hopeful. Since making Capernaum (which translates from the Arabic as “chaos”), he has been resettled in Norway with his family. He provides a compelling reason to see the film, even when Nabaki is desperately wringing emotion from the material like tramadol from old clothes or milk from a mother’s breast. 

Capernaum (15)
dir: Nadine Labaki

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State