Zain Al Rafeea plays a child living independently in Beirut in “Capernaum.” (Courtesy Christopher Aoun/Sony Pictures Classics)

A Lebanese boy fends for himself in compassionate ‘Capernaum’

Part neorealism, part Dickens and part Hollywood heart-tugger, “Capernaum,” directed and co-written by Nadine Labaki, depicts the effects of child poverty through the experiences of a Lebanese boy. Compelling storytelling, remarkable performances and extraordinary compassion distinguish this issue drama and survival journey.

Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the movie opens Friday at the Clay.

The title means a chaotic mess, shown by an overhead shot of dilapidated dwellings in a Beirut shantytown. What transpires isn’t a coming-of-age story. Protagonist Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is so hardened by circumstance, the notion of growing up can’t apply.

Zain, whose parents don’t know his age and haven’t officially registered him, is 12, a doctor says, and is serving a jail sentence for a violent act.

In a courtroom, Zain states that he is suing his mother (Kawthar al Haddad) and father (Fadi Kamel Youssef), “because I was born.”

Working with a nonprofessional cast and filming mostly in naturalistic tones, Labaki (“Caramel”) reveals, in flashback, how Zain got to this point.

We see his home life with abusive parents and numerous siblings. He doesn’t attend school, but makes deliveries for a grocer and helps his father and mother illegally sell opiates.

When his parents sell his 11-year-old sister (Cedra Izam) into marriage, Zain flees.

At an amusement park, he meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a kindly Ethiopian refugee who, lacking a valid identity card, fears deportation. Zain begins living in the shack Rahil shares with her 1-year-old son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankhole). He babysits when Rahil is working.

When Rahil vanishes, Zain’s struggle to care for himself and Yonas leads to encounters both friendly and sinister.

Periodically, Labaki returns to the courtroom scene, which, while dramatic, has a contrived quality.

Despite an occasional bit of heavy-handedness, the film credibly and grippingly looks at poverty, child neglect, refugees and ID-card insanity.

While Labaki angrily condemms a system that allows poverty like Zain’s to occur, her film is foremost an affecting drama that treats even its reprehensibly behaving characters compassionately, with hard-hitting yet non-exploitive storytelling, and feeling without sentimentality. Humor and decency exist amid darkness.

A free-flowing charm pervades the streetwise Zain’s interactions. The sight of Zain carting the tyke Yonas around in a contraption he’s crafted from a skateboard and pots is simultaneously sad and sweetly comical.

Herself an actor (she plays Zain’s lawyer), Labaki inspires amazing work from the nonprofessional performers, most of whom have experienced difficulties resembling their characters’ hardships.

Al Rafeea, who has the wary look of a grown-up and a stirring energy, earns our consistent concern. His scenes with his 1-year-old costar, a baby girl who nearly steals the movie, are realist gold.

Minor but appealing characters include a Syrian refugee girl (Farah Hasno) and a costumed eccentric calling himself Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian).

REVIEW
Capernaum
Three stars
Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef, Yordanos Shiferaw
Written by: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, Khaled Mouzanar
Directed by: Nadine Labaki
Running time: 2 hours
Rated: R

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