The past 12 months have seen the theatrical releases of three extraordinary dramas powered by nonactors: Chloé Zhao's lyrical contemporary western The Rider, starring horse trainer Brady Jandreau as a Native American cowboy on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation; Alfonso Cuarón's sublime Roma, an homage to the strong women who reared him in 1970s Mexico City, with first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio carrying the movie as its lead; and now Nadine Labaki's searing take on the global refugee crisis, Capernaum, in which the director is the only professional actor among a cast of hundreds who portray migrants in a Beirut slum. It is a sprawling epic that is also intimate; in its rawness, pathos, and intensity it recalls Italian neorealist films by Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, particularly the latter's war trilogy—Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (1948)—works that also examine traumatized survivors rebuilding their lives amid ruins and ghosts of the past and that, also like Capernaum, employ a little melodrama to heighten impact.
Shot over six months, Capernaum is documentary in feel, based on years of research and interviews Labaki and her collaborators conducted with refugees and neglected, abandoned, and/or incarcerated minors. It offers an immediacy and authenticity that would not have been possible without its nonprofessional performers improvising versions of their own experiences. In this story of an abused street child who sues his monstrous parents for bringing him into the world, no one is more compelling than Zain Al Rafeea, the youngster who plays the protagonist (also named Zain), a real-life refugee from Syria's civil war who was only 12 years old and barely literate when the director met him. He is also small for his age, a result of malnutrition; with haunted eyes and a stunted frame, he's every inch the heartbreaking urchin.
Make that scrappy and heartbreaking urchin. Capernaum opens and closes with Zain being shuffled through the legal system, having been sentenced to jail for five years for knifing a predatory scoundrel who, let's just say, had it coming. Through flashbacks, we witness his sorry childhood: how he and his many siblings are pressed into their parents' drug trade; how his shiftless father puts them to work rather than send them to school; and how Zain escapes to live on the streets rather than sleep seven to a bed and endure his parents' deceptions and cruelty. One day he meets another refugee, Rahil, a working Ethiopian single mother (Eritrean migrant Yordanos Shiferaw) who offers him shelter in her corrugated plastic shed if he will mind her baby son, Yonas (female toddler and scene stealer Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). When Rahil and other undocumented laborers are caught in a police roundup, Zain must fend for himself again, except now he has another mouth to feed, and after he learns about a horrific death in his family, he snaps. Labaki plays the advocate who represents him in his lawsuit against his parents.
(It should be noted here that although Al Rafeea shares certain things with his character—like having worked since the age of ten, having a temper and a habit of swearing—he's not a criminal, nor is he unloved. Shiferaw's life, however, has had uncomfortably close parallels to her character's: during the film shoot the actress was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks for being an illegal immigrant.)
A popular actress in her native Lebanon, Labaki has been lauded at the Cannes Film Festival since her 2007 writing-directing feature debut, Caramel, and her follow-up, Where Do We Go Now? (2011), which won two prizes at Cannes and remains Lebanon's top-grossing Arabic-language film. At last May's festival, Capernaum was nominated for the Palme d'Or and won three other awards, including the prestigious Jury Prize. (It was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.) But the film almost didn't get made: with no stars, no firm shooting schedule, and no fixed locations—which consequently meant no concrete budget—the project initially wasn't considered bankable. So Labaki's husband, cowriter and composer Khaled Mouzanar, assumed producer duties, letting her film the way she wanted: shooting almost the entire screenplay chronologically while setting up scenes that were meticulously plotted, but whose dialogue was devised by the amateur actorsn who could readily follow her beats despite not having a copy of the script. She worked with only two cameramen and a boom operator so that no extraneous equipment would hamper anyone's freedom of movement, and pushed for as many takes as she felt necessary, winding up with 520 hours of footage.
The end result has the stark grittiness of Matteo Garrone's Neapolitan crime story Gomorrah (2008), captures the dangers of a teeming slum with the veracity of Fernando Mereilles and Kátia Lund's City of God (2002), and chronicles the end of innocence as harrowingly as Cary Joji Fukunaga's Sin Nombre (2009) and Beasts of No Nation (2015)—all of which used nonactors to great effect. But those films are more violent than Capernaum, which is humanist in its outlook and purpose: Labaki wants to elicit empathy from her viewers, as well as instill outrage that such things can happen to children. The original French title of her film, Capharnaüm, can be loosely translated as "chaos" or "a jumble," while Capernaum itself is the name of an ancient village on the Sea of Galilee's north shore, site of the remains of two of the oldest synagogues in documented history, and legendary as a place where Jesus is believed to have resided early in his ministry.
God is nowhere to be found in Labaki's film, except in some deep-seated human impulse to do good. If the film has a flaw, it's an occasional repetitiveness of language and affect; it's also relentless in the travails it hurls at its young hero. Capernaum demands a lot from audiences, some of whom may find one or two middle passages too emotionally draining. But it's essential viewing for the ways in which it illuminates brutally hard lives many of us could otherwise not imagine, and for the craft of its nonprofessional performers, who, rescued from obscurity, have gifted us with indelible screen presences. Mostly, though, it is worth the investment just to see the last, long close-up of Zain at the end of one decisive chapter in his fight. His future is by no means certain, but he's earned, many times over, his first glimmer of what might be happiness. v