Stories that trade in narratives about child exploitation, abuse and neglect often run the risk of manipulation through phony sentimentality or affected misery porn. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Cannes effort “Capharnaüm,” a politically-charged fable about a young boy who launches a lawsuit against his parents, falls into traps of both miserablist tendencies and calculation. Regardless, in tackling the current social and economic distress of modern-day Lebanon, Labaki’s docu-like, uber-realist filmmaking creates something undeniably striking. Her most personal and emotional film to date “Capharnaüm” resonates due to its assured directorial commitment and mesmerizingly real central performance by its 11-year-old non-professional actor lead.
Featuring a rather overwrought premise, the precocious protagonist Zain (the young non-actor Zain Alrafeea) has decided to sue his parents on behalf of all children born to parents who could not afford to raise them. The charge is a “lack of love,” portrayed in the opening scene as this undocumented, and street-smart, kid makes his case in a Lebanese courtroom.
Through the court proceedings, a bleak portrait is described: with 16 children, some of whom are dead, Zain’s overwhelmed mother had to give up several of her children at an orphanage.
Through immersively stunning flashbacks, the audience is introduced to an extremely poor Lebanon where abandoned children roam the streets. Reaching his breaking point, Zain’s story begins when his 11-year-old sister was sold to marriage to an older man. Despondent and tired, he flees, taking the bus to a nearby town and quickly learns there’s an entire community of children living on the streets for their daily survival.
Known for “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?” Labaki shoots her young hero in a cinema-verité style; a handheld camera following along as he tries to find food and shelter, and a way out of this terror-filled misery. Eventually, he finds a haven with Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby, who he meets at a local carnival where she works illegally as a waitress to make ends meet.
If the restlessly moving film is a little reminiscent of “Slumdog Millionaire,” at times, “Capharnaüm” holds an intimacy that Danny Boyle‘s film never touches. Much of that is thanks to Alrafeea, a fierce screen presence reminiscent of Antoine Doinel in the “400 Blows” or even “The Kid” in the 1921 Chaplin classic. Alrafeea, as per the press notes, was a delivery boy since the age of 10, which makes the naturalist delivery of his performance all the more astounding; Zain must surely rank as one of the great child screen performances in quite some time.
Labaki portrays the sprawling slums of Lebanon in neo-realist fashion, plunging her story and camera into the dirt and squalor. When the drama leans too far into miserabilism, and it does at times to frustrating effect, it’s compensated for by the fact that she clearly understands this world well, has empathy for it and casts it in a incredibly harrowing light (even one of the actors, Shiferaw, was arrested during shooting, detained, and then released with the intervention of Labaki).
“Capharnaüm” is not without its issues. The director over-relies on the courtroom scenes and the movie’s message is heavy-handed at times. Yet, the sheer force of the filmmaking and its artful delivery over overpowers sappy overreaching.
Alrafeea is a revelation as the energetic, foul-mouthed Zain, beautifully delivering a spontaneous energy that feels as though its plucked right off the streets moments before the cameras roll. As he carries the film on his tiny shoulders, all the way through its roving 130 minute duration, we feel the weight of the world, his pain and at least a moving glimpse into the struggle of the marginalized everywhere. [B+]