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A Boy Grows Up Fast On The Streets Of Beirut In The Dickensian 'Capernaum'

Dec 13, 2018
Originally published on December 15, 2018 9:39 am

In the Lebanese movie Capernaum (the title translates to "chaos," an apt description of the world of the film), skinny, sad-eyed Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is 12 years old, though he's so tiny he could pass for eight.

He's running and playing with other kids in the streets of Beirut under the opening credits. Once those credits are done, we watch as he's led past TV reporters into a courtroom, where he barely comes up to the waist of the soldier who's brought him. He looks firmly at the judge who asks him why he's there.

"I want to sue my parents," he says.

The judge asks him why.

"Because I was born," he says, his voice breaking.

It's a searing indictment — one that we watch his mother and father silently absorb from their seats across the courtroom.

We then flash back to their home life, if you can call it that — crammed into a crumbling slum apartment where opiates are dissolved just inches from the mattress on which half a dozen kids lie sleeping.

Zain does what he can to protect his siblings — he's tough and streetwise despite his size — but when he can't keep his folks from sending off his eleven-year-old sister to be married to the landlord, he leaves.

He lives on the street, and looks for work in a garish, seaside amusement park, where he meets a pink-and-blue-costumed Cockroach-Man who claims to be Spider-Man's cousin, and an Ethiopian cleaning lady (Yordanos Shiferaw) with a baby (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), but no immigration papers. If he'll keep the baby safe, she decides, she'll give Zain shelter. a home away from home.

Had Charles Dickens lived in modern-day Beirut, he might have penned a story like Capernaum-- feisty, resourceful kid stealing food for his adopted family, caring for an infant as life takes cataclysmic turns involving human traffickers, scam artists, cops.

Nadine Labaki has written and directed a couple of lovely small films, but nothing suggesting she could make an epic like this. Or shepherd a first-timer like her young star to such an accomplished performance.

That he shares his name, Zain, with the character he portrays is very much the point. All of her actors are non-professionals, cast because their lives resemble those of the folks in the story she's crafted. They don't just play these parts, they've lived them.

On screen, they're surrounded by images both tender and wrenching: a mother in jail squeezing her breast-milk onto the floor, sobbing to her absent infant that she's sorry; a bedtime that's a tangle of children's arms and legs; bird's-eye shots of a shantytown stretching for miles.

Capernaum — chaos — and at its center, this astonishing child, who is profane, protective, profoundly compelling — a Dickensian hero in a saga that defies all odds, and finds hope in kids doing what they can ... in a hell made by adults.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A little boy takes his parents to court in the new film "Capernaum." In Lebanon, that title means chaos, and critic Bob Mondello says that's an accurate description of the world the boy lives in.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Zain is skinny, sad-eyed and about 12 years old, though he's so tiny he could pass for 8. He's running and playing with other kids in the streets of Beirut under the opening credits. But once those credits are done, we see him being led past TV reporters into a courtroom. He barely comes up to the waist of the soldier who's brought him. He looks firmly at the judge, who asks him why he's here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

ZAIN AL RAFEEA: (As Zain, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: I want to sue my parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

ELIAS KHOURY: (As judge, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: Why do you want to sue your parents, asks the judge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

AL RAFEEA: (As Zain, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: Because I was born, an indictment his mother and father across the courtroom absorb as the film flashes back to their home life, if you can call it that, crammed into a crumbling slum apartment where opiates are dissolved just inches from the mattress where half a dozen kids lie sleeping.

Zain does what he can to protect his siblings. He's tough and streetwise despite his size. But when he can't keep his folks from sending off his 11-year-old sister to be married to the landlord, he leaves to live in the streets and look for work in a garish seaside amusement park where he meets a pink and blue costumed cockroach man who claims to be Spider-Man's cousin and an Ethiopian cleaning lady with a baby but no immigration papers. If he'll keep the baby safe, she decides, she'll give Zain shelter, a home away from home.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

YORDANOS SHIFERAW: (As Rahil) Bravo, Zain.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

SHIFERAW: (As Rahil, laughter).

MONDELLO: Had Charles Dickens lived in modern-day Beirut, he might have penned a story like "Capernaum" - feisty, resourceful kid stealing food for his adopted family, caring for an infant as life takes cataclysmic turns involving human traffickers, scam artists, cops. Nadine Labaki has written and directed a couple of lovely small films but nothing suggesting she would make an epic like this or shepherd a first-timer like her young star Zain Al Rafeea to such an accomplished performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

AL RAFEEA: (As Zain, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: That his name, Zain, is the name of his character is very much the point. All her actors are nonprofessionals cast because their lives resemble those of the folks in the story she's crafted. They don't just play their parts; they've lived them. On-screen they're surrounded by images that are both tender and wrenching - a mother in jail squeezing her breast milk onto the floor, sobbing to her absent infant that she's sorry, a bedtime that's a tangle of children's arms and legs, bird's-eye shots of a shantytown stretching for miles. Capernaum - chaos - and at its center this astonishing child Zain, who is profane, protective, profoundly compelling, a Dickensian hero in a saga that defies all odds and finds hope in kids doing what they can in a hell made by adults. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.