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Five Cent Cine At Home: Capernaum

Drama comes close to reality in Beirut ghetto film

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), the Lebanese protagonist of this powerful, realistic drama about life in a Beirut ghetto, is a child on the cusp of adulthood. In the opening scenes, he’s playing with his friends with scrap materials standing in for guns; then helping his younger sister, Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam), disguise her menstrual period to avoid being “sold” to a nearby shopkeeper (who is also the family landlord, played by Nour El Husseini); then, incredibly, serving for months as a single parent to the barely-walking infant Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) in a tin-roofed shanty that lacks clean running water.

Zain is 12 (he thinks), but he’s also remarkably mature, if a bit stubborn: independent, principled, worldly, clever, and resourceful beyond his years (transporting Yonas in a cooking pot lashed to a skateboard while trying to find food and make a little money). These qualities help him weather the most extraordinary challenges and setbacks. Until they don’t. Then Zain faces a decision of consequence similar to one involving Sahar.

Unlike Yonas’s Ethiopian  mother — the serene and dogged Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who has been jailed by immigration authorities — Zain is native Lebanese. Unlike the ruffians in similar films, he’s not a juvenile delinquent. He also has parents — poor, unemployed, burdened by a household full of young children, under enormous stress (“we’re insects,” his father tells him), and moderately abusive — but nonetheless, there. What he and Rahil share is statelessness: she’s an undocumented immigrant; he, although born in Lebanon, has no papers.

It would be too much to say that director Nadine Labaki’s production has a positive ending, though the final scene features a smiling Zain that we’ve rarely seen before, and the last few minutes, appropriately or not, pull back from the brink of despair that hovers over much of the story.

Except for a few elevated shots of tin-shack Beirut and its souk and one long shot of Zain and Yonas trekking along a highway, “Capernaum” cinematographer Christopher Aoun favors closeups and hand-held work that lend a deep intimacy to the family life that Zain has fled, to Rahil’s struggles to raise her child, and to Zain’s epic journey on the streets.

Convincing acting, interwoven credible stories, and exceptional cinematography set ‘Capernaum’ apart from the many cinematic portrayals of poor, homeless children.

Convincing acting, interwoven credible stories, and exceptional cinematography set “Capernaum” apart from the many cinematic portrayals of poor, homeless children. Labaki’s moving feature is an outstanding entry into films about the underclasses.

Date: 2018

Director: Nadine Labaki

Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Fadi Youself, Kawsar Al Haddad, Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Nour El Husseini

Capernaum ★★★★ (out of 4 stars) 

Country: Lebanon

Subtitled in English; Language: Arabic; Amharic

Runtime: 126 minutes

Oscars: Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film

Other Awards: Nominated for more than 80 awards, including BAFTA and Golden Globes, won 35.

This 2 Film Critics review was originally published on March 7, 2019

Availability: Streaming Amazon Starz; for rent or purchase Amazon Prime, Apple TV and elsewhere. See JustWatch here.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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