According to the Bible, Jesus lived for a time in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee. He made the town the center of his ministry, but ultimately cursed Capernaum because of their lack of repentance even in the face of his many miracles.
The town’s name has since come to represent something like the idea of “chaos,” which is how the new Lebanese film Capernaum translates the word. We open with a 12-year-old boy named Zain in a Beirut courtroom, suing his parents for, essentially, bringing him into the world. Most of the movie is told in flashback as we see exactly what kind of grindingly difficult life Zain lives in the slums of the city, how he tries to escape that life, and the circumstances that ultimately bring him back.
The movie’s director, Nadine Labaki, grew up during the Lebanese civil war, and she’s said that Capernaum is intended to give a voice to the children who are victimized by all of the terrible decisions made by adults. And much of what we see is Zain trying to navigate a desperate world over which he has little control. But we also bear witness to the people who are perpetually unnoticed—we see the life of the poor in Beirut, the struggles of refugees, and we spend time with an Ethiopian woman in Lebanon illegally, living in constant fear that she and her baby will be discovered and deported. These people exist in this world, and we never know a thing about them.
The boy who plays Zain is stunning, full of rage and determination and a necessary self-reliance that must reflect the reality so many children live with. Capernaum is saturated with Zain’s urgent and angry energy, confronting us with our sins through the boy’s extraordinary face—a face that, in the film’s final shot, breaks our hearts in the most unexpected way.