Feb 18, 2019

An unforgettable foreign language Oscar nominee.


Grade: A

Director: Nadine Labaki (Caramel)

Screenplay: Labaki

Cast: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw

Rating: R

Runtime: 2 hr 6 min

By: John DeSando

Travel the slums of Beirut with 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who is suing his parents “for giving me life.” Included in his anger are the other children they can’t take care of. Capernaum (translated “chaos”) is a stunning cinematic achievement that will make you forget the splash of Slumdog Millionaire, the grit of City of God, and the unbelievable nature of the lawsuit.

Yet, given that his parents couldn’t afford to register his birth and therefore denied him personhood in Lebanon, the suit doesn’t seem so odd (“I need proof that you’re a human being,” declaims an official to Zain). After they sell off his little sister, Sahar, to the grocer for whom Zain makes deliveries, Zain takes off on a picaresque journey that starts at an amusement park—figuratively appropriate.

Like Slumdog, non-professional actors from the street in Capernaum lend the realism that De Sica practically patented in his iconic Italian neo-realism. Casting director Jennifer Haddad has done an enviable job drawing in children whose lives have reflected the ones they are playing, e.g., Zain has worked as a delivery boy since he was 10.

After meeting Ethiopian immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), Zain takes care of her toddler Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole—a phenomenal one-year-old child actor) in a loving, protective, and resourceful way as the boys troll Beirut to such a sweet intent it seems this could not be about a 12-year old child incarcerated for five years for stabbing an adult.

Capernaum rightfullly won the Cannes Jury award and is nominated for a best foreign language Oscar. You will agree to that wisdom when you spend some time in director Nadine Labaki’s unforgettable slice of mid-eastern life. Were it not for Netflix’s Roma, Capernaum might win that category (Shoplifters, another example of “poverty porn,” also occupies that territory).

Capernaum’s overarching beauty is partly in the cinematography, which careens through the ghetto with such agility as to make the place familiar and charming in its chaos. Left by Yonas’s mother, who is foolishly and miserably jailed before she can contact the boys, Zain tenderly takes care of the child, carrying him like a wounded brother in battle in the streets foraging for baby formula and looking for Rahil.

Confronting his own mother in court, the handsome Zain has nothing but contempt for her as she sits there pregnant and oblivious to the pain she causes children she can’t adequately raise. The suit becomes more a metaphor than a reality given its unlikely success.

Throughout, Zain is resourceful and proud, giving back insults like a 30-year old.  His acting and most others’ are first-rate, astonishing because they are non-professionals. Working with gifted director Nadine Labaki for six months in Beirut shows the importance of location shooting and premier coaching.

By the end, a sympathetic audience will forgive the formulaic coincidences and sweet resolutions because the bulk of the film is as real as the world of today’s immigrants lining the Mexican border to the US.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at