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It’s a universal fact that most children can’t wait to tell you how old they are. It’s literally their favorite thing to do. So it’s cause for significant alarm when Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), the Syrian refugee child at the center of the stirring Capernaum, stands before a judge and asserts that he doesn’t even know his age. Zain, who we discover is around 12 but looks much younger, has been serving time in a juvenile prison for stabbing a man, but he is in court this day to sue his parents, sitting at the next table. He doesn’t want money. Intead, he has a more altruistic goal: “I want them to stop having children.”

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the stirring Capernaum takes us back through the tragedies of Zain’s existence, demonstrating the realities of life on the streets for immigrant children in war-torn countries through a naturalistic lens. For Zain, it is a series of faint hopes followed by devastating disappointments. Living in a Beirut slum with his distracted family, he spends his days wandering the streets, trying to earn a few dollars to help out. His only joy comes from the bond with his 11-year-old sister, but she gets married off to an older shop-owner in the first reel. 

After he runs away from home, Zain is taken in by an Eritrean amusement park worker who, despite living illegally in Lebanon, offers the promise of love and nurture. But she gets arrested, leaving Zain suddenly in charge of her infant son. Zain finally makes some money, which he needs to get him and the baby out of Lebanon, but he gets evicted from the room he was squatting in and loses everything. In this world, the fundamental laws of physics are perverted: Every action has a disproportionately awful reaction.

Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki portrays these hardships, so unimaginable to most who will pay to see Capernaum, as common to Zain and others like him. No one takes much notice of the little boy dragging an infant around with him as he tries to hustle a living. Labaki ensures, however, that we notice every indignity, keeping her camera close to Zain’s face to capture each nuance and contradiction. Al Rafeea, with his marvelous performance, welcomes the scrutiny. He can be tender and vulnerable when abandoned, but when backed into a corner, he displays preternatural courage that is quietly terrifying, especially when he picks up that knife. Some movies would make Zain a pitiable figure, but he is so strong, independent, and emotionally available, that he engenders a very grown-up kind of respect from us.

It’s a major achievement by Labaki, who shot over 500 hours of footage with real-life refugees and first-time actors, allowing them to improvise until they achieved the authenticity she was seeking. It’s an important and effective choice. With anything less than total authenticity, Capernaum would have given audiences enough distance to shed a tear for Zain, then leave the theater and never think of him again. Instead, Capernaum is an immersive film that you can’t shake about a child that everyone else has forgotten.

Capernaum opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema and Angelika Film Center Mosaic.