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December 2018, Week 3

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 		 [The poignant drama, “Capernaum,” follows a boy who runs away
and winds up roaming the slums of Beirut shouldering a distressing
responsibility. At its premiere at Cannes in May, the film received
a 15-minute standing ovation. ] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 ‘CAPERNAUM’ REVIEW: A HEARTBREAKING AND DEFIANT LOOK AT A BOY’S
LIFE IN BEIRUT  
[https://portside.org/2018-12-18/capernaum-review-heartbreaking-and-defiant-look-boys-life-beirut]


 

 A.O. Scott 
 December 13, 2018
New York Times
[https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/movies/capernaum-review.html] 

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 _ The poignant drama, “Capernaum,” follows a boy who runs away
and winds up roaming the slums of Beirut shouldering a distressing
responsibility. At its premiere at Cannes in May, the film received
a 15-minute standing ovation. _ 

 Zain al Rafeea in “Capernaum,” directed by Nadine Labaki.,
Credit: LA Times 

 

“Capernaum,” Nadine Labaki’s hectic and heartbreaking new film,
borrows its name from an ancient city condemned to hell, according to
the Book of Matthew, by Jesus himself. The word has since become a
synonym for chaos, and modern Beirut as captured by Ms. Labaki’s
camera is a teeming vision of the inferno, a place without peace,
mercy or order.

Its crowded streets and makeshift dwellings hold endless desperation,
but the movie is too busy, too angry and too absorbing — too
exciting, you might say — to succumb to despair. The sources of its
remarkable energy are Ms. Labaki’s curiosity and the charisma of her
young star, Zain al Rafeea, who plays a boy named Zain.

Zain is around 12, though his precise age is unknown to him, his
parents or the Lebanese authorities. In some ways, he looks much
younger, a skinny urchin with big eyes and an air of worried
determination. But he also seems older than his years — hard-working
and resilient, with an impressive command of profanity and a steely
defiance that can back down grown men.

When we first meet Zain, he is in jail and then in court. He has
brought suit against his mother (Kawthar al Haddad) and father (Fadi
Kamel Youssef) for bringing him into the world and failing to care for
him or their other children. The courtroom scenes that frame the tale
of Zain’s ordeal at home and his adventures once he runs away serve
a few distinct purposes. They offer a measure of comfort — a
guarantee that whatever horrors he endures, our hero will at least
survive — and also a dose of semi-satirical social critique.

The kindly, avuncular judge (played by an actual retired Lebanese
jurist named Elias Khoury) and the officious lawyers representing Zain
and his parents speak a language of reasoned inquiry and civic
enlightenment. Their rhetorical pomp is meant to show the benevolent,
problem-solving authority of the state, which has the power to
discipline and protect its citizens. Everything that happens outside
the court makes a mockery of this assertion.

At first, Zain finds relief from his disorderly home in the routines
of work and the company of his siblings, especially his sister Sahar.
He is in constant motion, running errands for shopkeepers in his
neighborhood and helping his parents with their almost-legal and
brazenly criminal enterprises. When he fails to prevent them from
marrying off Sahar, who is 11, to their landlord’s son, Zain flees.
He seeks refuge in a shabby amusement park, and finds it with Rahil
(Yordanos Shiferaw), an African refugee who lives in a nearby
shantytown with her toddler son, Jonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).

Zain looks after Jonas while Rahil, who is working illegally with a
forged permit, scrubs floors and hauls garbage. The precariousness of
their household is agonizing, even as the tenderness that holds it
together is touching and understated. There is also an element of
comedy in the spectacle of Zain and Jonas as they make their way
through the chaos, the younger child nestled into a cooking pot
mounted on a skateboard that his caretaker pulls along through the
streets.

You might see a trace of Huck Finn in Zain — a wily, footloose boy
whose wanderings illuminate the absurdities and horrors of the larger
world. He’s also, in circumstance if not in attitude, like a Dickens
hero navigating a metropolis where poverty and cruelty threaten to
overwhelm kindness and fellow feeling.

That they don’t quite succeed is testament to the strength of
Labaki’s humanist convictions and also to her instincts as a
storyteller. Her two previous features, “Caramel”
[https://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/01/movies/01cara.html?module=inline] and
“Where Do We Go Now,” examine aspects of Lebanese life that are
somewhat less harsh than the ones depicted in “Capernaum” with a
similarly acute sense of the injustices and contradictions that plague
the country. They are also full of warmth and humor, which this film
insists are never absent, even in dire circumstances.

Which is not to say that anything here is sugar-coated. The buying and
selling of children is contemplated with chilling matter-of-factness,
and the world Zain inhabits is one where human bonds have become
brutally transactional. Forced to become a shrewd materialist — in
his interactions with adults he is almost always trying to make a deal
or work an angle — he somehow clings to a sense of honor and a
capacity for empathy.

Does Zain’s goodness arise from childish innocence or a magically
saintly disposition? In al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee with no training
as an actor, Labaki has found a performer who renders such questions
moot. This is a matter less of authenticity than of charisma. His
charm and magnetism amount to a kind of moral authority. You don’t
just root for Zain or believe in him: You trust him.

Rahil sees that. Jonas does too. And “Capernaum,” a sprawling tale
wrenched from real life, goes beyond the conventions of documentary or
realism into a mode of representation that doesn’t quite have a
name. It’s a fairy tale and an opera, a potboiler and a news
bulletin, a howl of protest and an anthem of resistance.

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