Last May, a distinguished journalist and I had to support each other down the aisle as we left the Cannes premiere of Nadine Labaki’s ruthlessly moving new film. I exaggerate slightly. But such was our sobbing that we needed a little sit down before making our way to the next venue.
The effect was as striking as it was unexpected. No slur is intended towards the Lebanese film-maker. Labaki's delightful 2007 drama Caramel marked her out as a director for the future. Where Do We Go Now?, from 2011, was seen as a slight stumble, but it still won the People's Choice Award at Toronto.
Suspicions were, however, aroused by a blurb for Capernaum that promised a framing scenario straight out of the Lifetime Network's reject pile. After researching the slums of Beirut in depth, the director decided to base her story on a child who sues his parents for bringing him into an awful world. "Why are you attacking your parents in court?" young Zain is asked. "For giving me life," he replies. This is a terrible idea for a film. No good can come of such sentimentality.
Here is the odd thing. Though Labaki has stuck with that framing device, it seems a mere footnote in the completed film. One is reminded of Charles Dickens in his middle period. A clunky, hanky-dampening mechanism is lost in a dazzling collision of social commentary, brash characterisation and coal-black humour. That comparison takes us only so far. Shot amid busy streets with a camera that recognises no barriers, rubbing up against ordinary citizens at every turn, the film owes few other debts to literary storytelling. It is every bit as cinematically engaged as the greats of Italian neo-realism.
The hero of the piece is Zain (Zain Alrafeea), a resourceful 12-year-old (he guesses) who helps with an array of dodgy family schemes while looking out for his young sister. Why does he panic when she gets her period? It transpires that the family are planning to flog the poor girl as a child bride. When that happens, he throws up his small hands and flees the home. Zain later falls in with an Ethiopian woman and helps care for her young baby.
To work one last squeeze from the Dickens parallel, the subsidiary characters are not much at home to nuance: they are either Nancy or Bill Sykes. The division between good and evil is stark. But Labaki's skill in manipulating Zain's progress through an endlessly dangerous city and in drawing a relaxed, sincere performance from young Alrafeea establishes her as an impresario of real genius. The effort required in shooting and cutting scenes shot in those hectic streets makes one tired just thinking about it. She and her editor, Konstantin Bock, deserve an award merely for assembling 120 minutes of lucid footage from the 500 hours of rushes. It is a masterpiece of logistics.
The film-makers have done more. They have constructed a drama that toys ruthlessly with our sympathies. It would require a soul of icy sludge to remain anywhere other than the edge of your seat when Zain is manoeuvring his young charge through hurtling traffic and untrustworthy passersby. The boy’s resilience is startling. He misunderstands some practical matters, but he sets up a mirror so his new friend can watch cartoons from the neighbour’s house (would you like a tissue?). He has a brilliant grasp of ghetto ethics: there comes a time when even stealing another baby’s bottle is the “right” thing to do.
That framing conceit remains an annoyance – all the more so as it could be lifted out cleanly – but it does little to damage an enormously engaging, endlessly humane hunk of urban melodrama. The film works. It certainly deserves its Oscar nomination as best foreign language film.
Opens on February 22nd