Last year’s Jury Prize winner at Cannes has a strange title that Bible-readers might get. Matthew 11:23: Jesus felt that the town of Capernaum was insufficiently appreciative of his miracles, so he damned the whole village. Damnable Capernaum survives in spirit in Beirut, Lebanon today. The city’s jagged skyline, seen from aerial shots, confuses as well as oppresses, even with the glimpses of Mediterranean light between the rickety, off-plumb high-rises. Hundreds of used tires weigh down the tarps over leaky roofs. Below are scribbled walls, gulch-like streets, and the friendly treachery of sidewalk hustlers.
The pre-teen Zain (Zain al Rafeea) got five years in juvenile jail for stabbing someone. Zain is notorious alreadyhe’s suing his parents for negligenceand the courtroom is surrounded by crowds and cameras. In flashback we hear his story. At around 12 years old, Zain was already trying to protect his barely pubescent sister Sahar from the grown adult shopkeeper who wanted to barter for her. Zain goes on to the streets, to be rescued by an Ethiopian illegal immigrant (Yordanos Shiferaw) with her fatherless child Yonas. Yonas the toddler interests a nearby vendor of children, to whom the mom owes money.
Often Capernaum is as impressive as the similar Shoplifters and The Florida Project. And though there’s hard research behind this study, it’s not all about misery; the film has room for a trip to a phantasmagorically decayed amusement park, complete with odd fiberglass statues, minor-key circus waltzes and a old toothless geezer in a Spider-Man suit. The film demonstrates the enterprising hustles of poor people, the womb of show business. It’s improv, as Zain’s coughing on a handful of change so his customer won’t ask for it; it’s studied, as when the kid practices a Syrian accent, in hopes of getting refugee status. (In real life this non-pro young actor is a Syrian refugee, who has since gotten asylum in Scandinavia.)
The 400 Blows style freeze frame ending identifies the neo-realist roots of this kind of study of lower-class life. Director Nadine Labaki’s gaze is level, rarely melodramatic and not prosecutorial. The problems here are far bigger than an overwhelmed mom, a shiftless dad and mobs of street urchins kept out of schools. Unless you’re a blueblood, this is the world your immigrant grandparents knew. Unless you’re wildly optimistic, you can see this is the world we’re headed for.
Plays Feb 23 at 3Below Theaters & Lounge