For my money, Capernaum was the best film of 2018—similar to Roma (slice of life, untrained actors), not as cinematically breathtaking (though still impressive), but emotionally more gripping (fuller characters, deeper drama). The title is an Arab word meaning Godforsaken chaos (taken from a Biblical tale of a city literally forsaken by God), and that's a fair description of the impoverished section of Beirut where the film takes place. It begins a bit hokey: a 12-year-old boy is in court, suing his parents for giving him life; but as the story unfolds, flashing back and taken forward, a riveting portrait emerges of a broken system, a cursed land, and how its trapped dwellers survive and—a few of them—break through. I should add that this is not a morose film; it's grim, yes, but also stirring, buoyant, boisterous, at times funny, and, in the end, a bit uplifting, though just a bit: never sentimental.

519cap.boxThe protagonist is the 12-year-old boy: street smart, shrewd, daring, profane, and morally grounded, even if he resorts to necessary thieving. What makes the film hum is the boy who plays him, Zain al-Rafeea—a street kid himself, a Syrian refugee, uneducated, a first-time actor, but maybe the most compelling child actor since Jean-Pierre Leaud, Francois Truffaut's discovery in The 400 Blows, and Zain makes Antoine Doinel seem like Little Lord Fauntelroy by comparison. You can't take your eyes off him, and director Nadine Labaki (who also co-wrote the screenplay) rarely does.

Filming in the actual streets, surrounded by their real denizens, Labaki paints an immersive picture, resonant of Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave (400 Blows must have been somewhere in her mind), Chaplin's The Kid, but also her own distinct touch. It's very different from her previous films ( Caramel, about a bourgeois Beirut hairdressing salon, and Where Do We Go from Here, about a village of war widows). It signals the emergence of a major writer-director.


Shot with an Arris Alexa, this HD transfer looks a bit more overexposed in some of the outdoor scenes than the print that I saw at Film Forum in New York; but otherwise, the colors are bold, the details sharp, the cityscape deep, the sound immersive (though not as thoroughly surrounding as the soundtrack of Roma).


After watching Capernaum the first time, I wondered how Labaki filmed in this setting, how she got her actors to do what they do (they're uniformly believable, even moving), and how she filmed in these crowded streets. The disc's special features, though a bit repetitive, answered all those questions. That's remarkable, too.

STUDIO: Sony, 2018
AUDIO FORMAT: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
LENGTH: 123 mins.
DIRECTOR: Nadine Labaki
STARRING: Zain al-Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure