Extreme poverty is pervasive around the globe and CAPERNAUM (CHAOS in Lebanese) directed by Nadine Labaki gives us a searing portrait of one 12 -year-old boy who is struggling to survive the circumstances in which he was born into. His family can barely feed their many children, who dash out and play on sewer run-off streets in the slums of Beirut along with starving dogs. The games are those of any child on any street anywhere in the world - boys wielding swords and make-shift guns experiencing the authority and violence of the powerful through imitation and play.
The film moves along at a slow, mesmerizing pace, the depiction of how one endures along with the sacrifices families make to subsist are brutal. There is not much dialogue - images alone often give us a sense of place - but our focus is riveted on the young, sensitive boy Zain (a beautiful performance by Zain Al Rafeea) who is wily, angry and inventive in the methods he devises to cope. Despite the horrific conditions of life, his humanity and sense of justice is unbroken.
Zain’s loving sister who is 11 years old, is sold off to marry an older, lecherous man in exchange for a brood of cackling, fluttering hens. He tries to save her, but the family slings the fragile young girl - her thin limbs flailing in frustration - into a vehicle and drives away leaving him deprived of his life-long companion. At this point, Zain boards a bus and leaves home traveling into a world of impoverishment and the enigmatic unknown.
The film moves back and forth in time; the present is a courtroom where Zain is suing his parents for the “crime” of giving him life”, while weaving back into the past where facts are seen in the context of a young boy, attempting to subsist by finding food to eat, a place to sleep and a crime committed avenging a loved one. Relationships are formed and through them, we become even more aware of the bureaucratic nature of displaced people, the necessity of having “papers,” and becoming a refugee in a land where scarcity is often equal to the home from which you have fled.
There is a touching link formed between Zain and an Ethiopian mother and her baby whose care he is responsible for when she is out working. Zain builds a makeshift wagon to tow this beautiful baby around; two children moving through the crowded dust-filled streets of a city avoiding the oncoming traffic of trucks and the scores of duplicitous people devising schemes to take whatever little there is left of their few coins, thereby diminishing their resolve and courage. CAPERNAUM would be heartbreaking to watch if not for the strength of Zain, his fierce single-minded willpower conferring buoyancy to what would seem like a hopeless situation into glimmers of possibilities.. He is lovely and so is this raw and delicate film.