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By Cynthia Citron

Capernaum.  A lovely name for a village near the sea.  Surrounded by blue mountains, with the sun glinting off the silver leaves of the olive trees and the sound of children laughing as they chase each other around the village square.

Unfortunately, Capernaum, actually the name of a small village on the shore of Lake Tiberias, is not the subject of these bucolic images.  It is the title of a Lebanese film and the name, in Arabic, means Chaos. It would be more appropriate to call it Squalor. Nevertheless, the film is nominated for an Academy Award in the  Best Foreign Language category. And it is magnificent!

Written and directed by Nadine Labaki, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize and a 15-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

The story deals with a devastatingly poor family, refugees from Syria, living in the slums of Lebanon.  The oldest child, a 12-year-old boy named Zain, (played by Zain al Rafeea) is charged with the responsibility of finding and undertaking a variety of menial jobs as well as caring for the younger children in the family.  And absorbing the physical and emotional abuse of his perpetually angry and neglectful parents.

Although he has never been to school, he is bright and street-smart and as the film begins he is sitting in a courtroom explaining to a judge why he wants to sue his parents “for giving me life”.  It is a life of unremitting sadness, made even more sad when his parents sell his 11-year-old sister to a man who wants to marry her.

When his sister dies in childbirth, Zain leaves his family and takes his chances living on the street.  He finds the occasional scraps of food, steals others, and is relatively indifferent to sleeping on the streets in the midst of detritus and garbage that never gets picked up.  Actually, it’s not much worse than sleeping with his parents and siblings, huddled together on the floor in a single tiny room.

Eventually he meets a young Ethiopian woman named Rahil (Yordanis Shiferaw) and her adorable baby who steals every scene in the film and acts so brilliantly that you’d think he’d been doing it for years.  His name in the film is Yonas, but in real life he is named Boluwatife Treasure Bankole.

The next day Zain offers to babysit Yonas as Rahil goes off to work.  And the second half of the film is devoted to the adventures (and misadventures) of Zain and Yonas, as Rahil is picked up by the police and sent to jail for being an undocumented refugee.  

Zain, alone, manages to occasionally feed and diaper the baby boy and wheel him around on makeshift wagons (one in particular has enormous round washing tubs as wheels) and these are the scenes that really strike home as the viewer lives through the miserable poverty and humiliating experiences that so many people in the world are subject to.

This absorbing film took six months to shoot, with actors who were not professionals and who often added their own personal thoughts and dialogue to the script.  Labaki included these in the film and often reworked the script around them. By the time she was finished, the film was 12 hours long and the next two years were spent in editing it down to two hours and ten minutes.  If you love this film as much as I did, however, you’d be happy to sit through the whole 12 hours of it.

“Capernaum” was released in Los Angeles in time to be considered for an Academy Award on February 24. It is currently screening at a number of AMC and Laemmle Theaters around town.  Check your paper or computer for venues and times.

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