When movies are made about the world’s corners of abject poverty, they’re often brought to us through the eyes of a child: the son in “Bicycle Thieves” (1948), Apu in “Pather Panchali” (1955), Moonee in “The Florida Project” (2017). Zain, the wiry, undernourished Beirut slum kid played by first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea, is both the center of the Lebanese drama “Capernaum” and the person who keeps it from becoming an exercise in miserabilism. The movie is too honest to traffic in false hope, but it recognizes the necessity of defiance, and in Zain it has a miniature lion.
The crosscutting is thick and somewhat confusing in the opening scenes, but eventually director/co-writer Nadine Labaki spreads her story out on the table. Zain, who’s 12 but looks about 9, is in juvenile prison for stabbing someone as yet unidentified; brought to court, he informs the judge (Elias Khoury, an actual retired jurist) that he wants to sue his parents. Why? “For giving me life.” “Capernaum” (the title means “chaos”) then circles around to show us that life.
It’s dire. Zain’s mother (Kawsar Al Haddad) and father (Fadi Yousef) are callous, abusive disasters out of a Dickens novel, raising uncounted children in a squalid walk-up and sending them out to the streets of Beirut to scam whatever food or money they can. Zain’s beloved sister Sahar (Haita Izzam) has just had her first period, which Zain knows means only one thing: She’ll be sold off to the family’s creepy landlord (Nor El Husseini) as a child bride.
Very quickly, we see what separates Zain from the pack: He’s smart, fast, and resourceful, and he has an inner moral compass that may be nature but certainly isn’t nurture. After circumstances send the boy fleeing from his family into unknown parts of the city, Zain finds a provisional home with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian immigrant working several jobs with forged papers and desperate to hold on to her toddler, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). The three become a makeshift family, with Zain left to baby-sit Yonas and profanely narrate the televised cartoons the two watch by tipping a mirror toward a neighbor’s window.
Labaki, a Lebanese actress — she plays Zain’s government-appointed lawyer in the trial scenes — has previously directed two fine feminist comedies set in her home country, “Caramel” (2007) and “Where Do We Go Now?” (2011). “Capernaum” is of a higher, more difficult order. (The film won the jury prize at Cannes last May and on Tuesday became one of five 2018 foreign language Oscar nominees.)
Its portrait of the bottom rungs of a collapsing society is epic in detail and much less forgiving than Labaki’s earlier films. Zain’s parents are seen with a sharp binocular vision as both victimizers and victims; the film’s men tend toward societally enabled pedophiles like the landlord or predatory hustlers like Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), who sells black market IDs from his stall in the souk and who eyes baby Yonas with the greed of a man who knows there’s always a buyer somewhere.
Bankole is a natural and an adorable camera presence, but he’s also a baby, and “Capernaum” puts Yonas through occasional hell in ways that may distress some viewers. For me, the hollowing cheeks and dimming eyes of the film’s young hero are harder to take, especially after Rahil disappears from the story.
Yet witnessing that growing weariness, that struggle against despair, is also the movie’s primary reason for being. How much cruelty and neglect can a young person take before he has simply had enough? Labaki hasn’t made a movie about a young spirit being crushed but, rather, about how it might be forged into something defined and sure. What keeps both Zain and the drama driving forward is his knowledge (and ours) that to be alive means to deserve better than this; the affection shown him by Rahil and Yonas is only proof that that something better exists.
“Capernaum” is a hard, hard watch meant to force comfortable moviegoers out of their bubbles of ease. The rewards, in no particular order, are the central figure, the young actor playing him, and the film’s magnanimous windows onto suffering and resilience.
Directed by Nadine Labaki. Written by Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany. Starring Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. At Kendall Square. 119 minutes. R (language, some drug material). In Arabic and Amharic, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.