Capernaum

Oscar-nominated in the Foreign Film category, Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki’s film is a torrent of emotions, a tough as it is sentimental and as heartbreaking as it is exasperated.

The official translation of the title is Chaos, and it tells a chaotic tale of a 12-year-old Beirut street kid called Zain who sues his parents for bringing him into this cruel world.

From that unlikely-seeming start in a courtroom, the action flashes back (without signal) to a frenetic family life of screaming children and honking street horns in a poverty-stricken part of town.

The family are depicted as a quasi-Dickensian bunch, with Zain sent out to scam local pharmacies our of a couple of packs of Tramadol (an opiate pain killer) which the mum and her kids crush up into a solution in a bowl in which they then swirl clothes around. 

The clothes are then smuggled into the local prison where their older sons are held, and who re-dissolve the clothes and sell the drugs on the inside. 

Meanwhile, Zain’s beloved sister Sahra is about to be sold off by her parents to a local shopkeeper in exchange for free rent. This a harrowing scenario, but it’s just the start. Zain goes on the run and more dangerous episodes ensue.

He meets a fugitive Ethiopian worker and offers to babysit her very cute child Yonas, but when she’s rounded up for not having papers, Zain is left holding the baby and fending for themselves in the shanty towns and soukhs of the city.

The director’s work with Zain and the baby is quite extraordinary. Zain is handsome, cheeky, sweary, smart, resourceful and big-hearted. What a find. And the baby, who can just about walk is amazing. I have no idea how she got this performance out of him, out of the pair of them. It’s one of the great feats of direction amid all the chaos of the streets. 

You can think of Bicycle Thieves, Salaam Bombay or the Dardenne Brothers. even Slumdog Millionaire and plenty of other neorealist-style ‘guttersnipe’ dramas, but I can’t recall anything quite like the double act of Zain and Yonas for slice-of-life realism and heart-string pulling.

There’s a bloke in the market called Aspro who we know is a wrong’ un and who offers Zain money for Yonas, a chilling echo of the very system he’s run away from and seems destined to repeat.

It’s all a bit too awful at times. The cacophony of the traffic, the aerial shots of the slums and the iron roofs held down by tyres, the wobble of the hand-held camera, the pain of the ululation’s of imprisoned women. And then there’s the unlikeliness of the climax, how Zain comes to be in court. 

Chaos is right. But by then you might be in too many tears to notice.