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[Herald Review] Capernaum, beautiful tale of harrowing reality

“Beautiful” may seem an odd choice of words to describe a story very much devoid of laughter, depicting child abuse and the loss of humanity in the slums of Lebanon via a child transaction that takes place with cold nonchalance.

Indeed, “Capernaum” is not an easy movie to watch: The hard-hitting film forces a stream of thoughts. Yet, the poignant drama by director Nadine Labaki manages to summon faith and hope through the heartbreaking tale of a boy in Beirut.

The film follows Zain, supposedly 12 -- his actual age is unknown as his parents did not register his birth -- struggling through life by himself. The boy, behind bars for stabbing a man, publicly sues his parents for giving him life. 

“Capernaum” (Green Narae Media)
“Capernaum” (Green Narae Media)

The movie delves into the life of Zain, who is as scrappy and street-smart as he is malnourished and neglected. He is constantly on the move to protect his younger siblings, which his parents are unable to do.

After failing to prevent his younger sister Sahar from being sold to a local merchant, Zain runs away and seeks refuge in an amusement park, where African refugee Rahil gives him shelter and food in exchange for babysitting her infant son, Jonas.

Although it deals with a gruesome reality, the film does have charm and humor. Most of it comes from Zain’s interaction with Rahil and Jonas, leading to some rare but legitimate feel-good moments and surprisingly funny ones as well.

Of course, this does not last. Capernaum, the biblical village signifying chaos, represents the theme of the movie as one hazard comes after another.

Despite the hopelessness of the setup, the film’s relentless anger and defiance refuse to cave in to the situation. The energy is provided by the lead, Zain al Rafeea, whose phenomenal performance manages to create a strong, believable character despite lacking any previous acting experience or training.

The boy looks to be a good two to three years younger than his age, with his skinny limbs and small stature. Yet Zain’s deep eyes and the resiliency of his character are that of a much older person.

The ultrarealistic nature of both the character and the story derives from the fact that he is a Syrian refugee whose situation is not completely unlike the one his movie persona faces.

With the film, director Lebaki has sparked a discussion about the universal issue of child abuse and poverty. Rather than creating a preachy tale, Lebaki cleverly and realistically depicts the ongoing issue and invites the audience to ponder over it.

I liked that Zain’s parents were not depicted as rubber-stamp “evil” parents. They have their own problems and are -- in their own perspective -- victims of their situation.

The situation in reality is never so black and white with a clear villain, and the way Lebaki captures the complexity makes the story feel very real.

In spite of all that he goes through, Zain maintains an unwavering charm and sense of dignity. But this is unlike the unrealistically saintly nature of protagonists or delusional inherent good nature found only in the film universe. You feel the authenticity of the character in his struggles and the interaction he has with other people. You believe in him, rather than automatically fall behind him because he is the “hero.”

While inspired by real life, “Capernaum” rises above mere mimickry of reality. It is simultaneously a rallying cry and a hymn of persistence: a strong drama that provokes the audience to think while showing a glimmer of hope that does not feel forced.

The film opens in local theaters on Jan. 24.

By Yoon Min-sik