Will the circle be unbroken?

Life on the margins in ‘Capernaum’

A still from 'Capernaum'

As the old saying goes: If you think you’ve got problems, ask someone about theirs. Within one hour you’ll be begging for your own back.

With that in mind, meet Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old boy incarcerated in a Beirut jail for stabbing, as he calls him, “a sonofabitch.”

“You stabbed someone,” the judge clarifies, softening the young man’s testimony.

“Yes,” Zain responds. “A sonofabitch.”

Well, what else do you call a man who accepts the hand of an 11-year-old girl — Zain’s sister — in marriage as payment? And what do you call the father and mother who sell their daughter into such an arrangement? People are quick to judge, even quicker to act, but as Capernaum shows, that sonofabitch didn’t exactly come from nowhere. And neither did Zain’s parents. To borrow an idea from Michel Foucault, the trouble with origins is that there is always something that came before.

Such is life in Capernaum, the latest film from Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki. Capernaum — a title that invokes both religious significance and chaos — continues the long lineage of movies with children trying to survive in a world that doesn’t want them: Los Olvidados, Pixote, even The 400 Blows. Powerful films all, and Capernaum confidently stands shoulder to shoulder with the lot. Al Rafeea is phenomenal as the young boy hardening his heart to a world filled with poisonous vipers, and Labaki expertly manages to keep the camera constantly positioned between Al Rafeea and the multitude of dangers lurking off to the side. Sometimes it’s the blaring horn of a passing car, other times it is the chatter of men up to no good. No matter how far Zain wanders, sanctuary is always a mile off.

But Capernaum is not without its miracles. Through a chance meeting with an Ethiopian refugee, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), Zain is allowed to recreate a semblance of home life — something he is quite adept at — by caring for her one-year-old son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, quite possibly the most adorable child ever captured on camera). But when Rahil is incarcerated for not having papers — a recurring issue in the movie — Zain finds himself locked once more in the predicament of having to care for a child while being a child himself.

It’s a mean old world out there, but movies are safe places where we can go and see the world for what it is without having to place ourselves in harm’s way. Capernaum is not an easy watch, but it is a beautiful one, despite how grisly it can seem at times. Appropriately, Capernaum is one of the five films nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, easily the most stacked category in the whole line-up. Much more than the eight movies nominated for Best Picture, these five — Capernaum, Cold War, Never Look Away, Roma and Shoplifters — comprise an unflinching look at the world without ever losing sight of the humanity that ennobles them or condemns them. Watching them is the first step in validating the marginalized lives to which they cling. 

On the Bill: Capernaum. Feb. 20-23. Dairy Arts Center, Boedecker Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-444-0583, thedairy.org.

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