A Boy Grows Up Fast On The Streets Of Beirut In The Dickensian 'Capernaum' A tough, wise-beyond-his-years 12-year-old (Zain Al Rafeea) leaves the misery of his home life, only to take on the responsibility of caring for an even younger child.
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A Boy Grows Up Fast On The Streets Of Beirut In The Dickensian 'Capernaum'

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A Boy Grows Up Fast On The Streets Of Beirut In The Dickensian 'Capernaum'

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Movie Reviews

A Boy Grows Up Fast On The Streets Of Beirut In The Dickensian 'Capernaum'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A little boy takes his parents to court in the new film "Capernaum." In Lebanon, that title means chaos, and critic Bob Mondello says that's an accurate description of the world the boy lives in.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Zain is skinny, sad-eyed and about 12 years old, though he's so tiny he could pass for 8. He's running and playing with other kids in the streets of Beirut under the opening credits. But once those credits are done, we see him being led past TV reporters into a courtroom. He barely comes up to the waist of the soldier who's brought him. He looks firmly at the judge, who asks him why he's here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

ZAIN AL RAFEEA: (As Zain, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: I want to sue my parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

ELIAS KHOURY: (As judge, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: Why do you want to sue your parents, asks the judge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

AL RAFEEA: (As Zain, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: Because I was born, an indictment his mother and father across the courtroom absorb as the film flashes back to their home life, if you can call it that, crammed into a crumbling slum apartment where opiates are dissolved just inches from the mattress where half a dozen kids lie sleeping.

Zain does what he can to protect his siblings. He's tough and streetwise despite his size. But when he can't keep his folks from sending off his 11-year-old sister to be married to the landlord, he leaves to live in the streets and look for work in a garish seaside amusement park where he meets a pink and blue costumed cockroach man who claims to be Spider-Man's cousin and an Ethiopian cleaning lady with a baby but no immigration papers. If he'll keep the baby safe, she decides, she'll give Zain shelter, a home away from home.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

YORDANOS SHIFERAW: (As Rahil) Bravo, Zain.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

SHIFERAW: (As Rahil, laughter).

MONDELLO: Had Charles Dickens lived in modern-day Beirut, he might have penned a story like "Capernaum" - feisty, resourceful kid stealing food for his adopted family, caring for an infant as life takes cataclysmic turns involving human traffickers, scam artists, cops. Nadine Labaki has written and directed a couple of lovely small films but nothing suggesting she would make an epic like this or shepherd a first-timer like her young star Zain Al Rafeea to such an accomplished performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPERNAUM")

AL RAFEEA: (As Zain, foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: That his name, Zain, is the name of his character is very much the point. All her actors are nonprofessionals cast because their lives resemble those of the folks in the story she's crafted. They don't just play their parts; they've lived them. On-screen they're surrounded by images that are both tender and wrenching - a mother in jail squeezing her breast milk onto the floor, sobbing to her absent infant that she's sorry, a bedtime that's a tangle of children's arms and legs, bird's-eye shots of a shantytown stretching for miles. Capernaum - chaos - and at its center this astonishing child Zain, who is profane, protective, profoundly compelling, a Dickensian hero in a saga that defies all odds and finds hope in kids doing what they can in a hell made by adults. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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