Brown kids locked in cages. In America!
It continues to be a shocking sight in the land of liberty and justice. Yet the current rash of xenophobia and hatred is hardly exclusive to the U.S.A. It’s also a source of similarly hideous optics from the southernmost tip of Italy to the far northern reaches of Scandinavia. Even the Middle East isn’t foreign to refugees facing scorn as they desperately flee for their lives; images vividly documented in the Oscar-nominated “Capernaum.”
The title translates to “chaos” in French literature, and chaos is exactly what Nadine Labaki’s brutal, unflinching film depicts in boiling down a worldwide crisis to the microcosm of a 12-year-old Syrian boy suffering the mean streets of Beirut. His name is Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and when first seen he’s in juvenile detention, clad only in briefs and a T-shirt; appropriate since he’s very much like a paper doll, stripped of all identity, possession and some might say, humanity. Poverty, neglect and rampant racism will do that to you. But when he later enters a courtroom, it’s not to stand trial for his crime of plunging a butcher knife into a pedophile’s back; it’s to sue his destitute parents, whom he blames for irresponsibly bringing him into a world they were ill-equipped to protect him from.
If you’re expecting a Lebanese version of the old Drew Barrymore sudser, “Irreconcilable Differences,” Labaki immediately vanquishes such thoughts with flashbacks of Zain begging, borrowing and stealing to help feed and clothe his more than half-dozen siblings. His strong suit is his motherly doting on his 11-year-old sister, Sahar (Cedra Isam), an affection exemplified by the maternal-like fuss he makes in helping her navigate the intricacies of her first menstruation. And it won’t be the last time he’ll assume a responsibility his mother would no doubt shun.
Clearly, he’s the adult his lazy, self-pitying parents can’t bother to be, as they continue to pop out more children doomed to the same wretched existence. But their depravity reaches a low when talk turns to selling Sahar to a neighborhood shopkeeper. It’s the last straw for Zain, who walks out on his family and puts his crafty resourcefulness to practice roaming the perilous streets before finding a new family with fellow refugee, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), and her toddler son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, who’s actually a girl). It’s a sacred match, with Rahil providing food and motherly love and Zain babysitting Yonas while Rahil is at work or bartering with the local black marketer (Alaa Chouchneih) over a new ID needed to avoid deportation back to Ethiopia.
Thus, the scene is set for a blissful existence. But not so fast. This isn’t a Disney movie; it’s real life, and most of the actors actual refugees riffing on their own fretful experiences. And Labaki holds nothing back, as circumstances force Zain and Yonas to strike out on their own in an instinctive fight for survival. It’s very much akin to those wrenching scenes of child endangerment in “Slumdog Millionaire,” as Labaki and cinematographer Christopher Aoun deliver a frightening, child’s-eye view of an uncaring world. There are zero safety nets, especially in Beirut, where to even be considered human, you must have written documentation of your existence, a precious commodity the children - being illegal immigrants - are without.
As you may have gathered, “Capernaum” is not a fun watch, but it is fascinating to observe a kid like Zain thinking on his feet, sticking to his principles and pursuing his dreams of fleeing to Sweden in hopes of finding a land far removed from the sewer of inhumanity Beirut has become. Labaki isn’t blind to the strain the flux of refugees is putting on the system, but she rightly questions the burden her government places on these poor souls by creating vacuums conducive for homelessness, drug abuse and human trafficking. It’s sobering. But it’s not without slivers of hope.
It also has Al Rafeea and Bankole, two child actors making their screen debuts without a hint of mugging or pandering. Like everything in “Capernaum,” they are achingly real; most likely because they lived equally precarious lives before hitting the lottery when Labaki extracted them from the masses. They are terrific together, even funny at times, not to mention adorable. But they never stop making your heart break in a film that spares no quarters in divinely advocating for change. Will it come? If we want to continue to think ourselves as human - it must.
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
Cast includes Zain Al Rafeea, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Yordanos Shiferaw and Cedra Isam. (In Lebanese with English subtitles.)
(R for language and some drug material.)