Despite being a late viewer of this film which has won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for best foreign film in the US., I can’t miss the opportunity to inspire any other latecomers to see this immediately. Never before have I seen a film in which a baby deserves to have been nominated for best supporting actor, not to mention a Gold Pacifier for most onscreen time with no dialogue.
I confess that I avoided seeing this until now under the mistaken notion that it would be about the war in Syria and the resulting exodus of that population to Lebanon. Instead, it’s a movie that applies to any downtrodden people who have more children than they can afford to support, and the toll that this takes on families, societies and mostly the children on the cusp of puberty who shoulder the responsibilities that their parents can’t or won’t manage. It concerns a young boy, Zain, whose parents can’t remember when he was born since so many kept coming subsequently. Raised in poverty and mostly on the street, he leaves home after his younger sister is married off to an older man in exchange for a bunch of chickens. Zain is a hustler with an angelic face and a sensitive soul and the movie relates his Dickensian experiences through the device of a flashback from his appearance before a judge where he purports to sue his parents for letting him be born without the resources to care for him and the numerous siblings that followed. If there is a small weakness in the movie, it’s that plot device which is too cute by half and totally out of place. This boy would never have thought of a lawsuit, nor would he ever have wanted to get involved with the law. The writers and marvelous director (Nadine Labaki) should have realized once they found their unprofessional cast, that they had struck gold and didn’t require a framing gimmick to get our attention.
Far from simplifying his life by running away, Zain inherits the immense responsibility of caring for an Ethiopian baby whose mother fails to come home from work. We know what has happened to her and though the boy uses all his ingenuity to to try to find her, he is unsuccessful. How he and the baby cope occupies a lengthy part of this movie but you will be dazzled by his resourcefulness and his un-mannered performance which leaves most young actors in the dust.
Aside from being a place, Capernaum is a word that connotes chaos - a perfect description for disenfranchised people struggling to keep their families intact, their lives on track and their support systems one notch higher than abject poverty. It wisely refrains from preaching to us by showing us everything we need to get the picture. It is touching, heart-breaking and ultimately triumphant in elevating the redemption inherent in simple kindness and resilience.
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