Capernaum is not what we call “entertainment," and its subject matter—a child suing his parents for the life they’ve forced him into—will certainly be too harsh for some. But the viewer owes it to himself to consider it, because it is indeed a powerful film about life in the underside of modern-day Lebanon and, despite its harshness, it also offers glimpses of hope in the end.
Nominated for best foreign film for the 2019 Academy Awards (it lost to A Fantastic Woman), Capernaum is set in a crowded and chaotic Beirut. Zain, a young boy living with his family in a crowded tenement, is fiercely loyal to his sister. When she (who has just entered puberty) is forced into a marriage with a much older man, Zain flees home, consumed with anger at his parents but unaware of where he will land.
The director, Nadine Labaki, uses the court hearing as the framework in which to flash back to Zain’s odyssey in the slums, and it seems less important to the essence of the story than the flashbacks. It's in the latter that we're plunged into great darkness, as Zain takes up with an Ethiopian refugee who has her own trial to bear as she cares for her two-year old son and does what she must to keep from being deported. Together, they help each other, and this is perhaps part of the point of the story—that friendship can flourish anywhere-- until circumstances change, and the story (for the viewer at least) ends.
Zain Al Rafeea, who plays Zain, is the powerhouse center of this movie. Though a boy, he has all the anger, willpower and latent wisdom of a grown man, but a man who has been battered and beaten by those around him. By implication, Labaki seems to be saying his life is worth living simply by virtue of the fight he puts up for his sister, for himself, and for his friend’s young son—a son who falls under the shadow of his own terrifying ordeal.
I highly recommend Capernaum.
[This film is rated R.]