BEIRUT: Nadine Labaki’s reputation as a filmmaker rests upon sweet-natured, lightly comic stories about nice people undergoing difficulties. Her 2005 debut “Caramel” (“Sikkar al-Banat”) is a sunny comedy sketching the relationships among a few young women working at a Beirut beauty salon, their clients, friends and lovers. Foremost are the travails of its heroine (Labaki), who’s in love with someone else’s husband.
The 2011 musical romantic comedy “Where Do We Go Now?” (“Wa Halaq Wayn?”) is among several contemporary retellings of “Lysistrata,” Aristophanes’ fifth-century-B.C. comedy about a group of women who prevent their men from going to war by denying them sex. Here, the story is located in an isolated mountain village, where Amal (Labaki) leads Christian and Muslim women in the “war, then no love” campaign.
Set among Beirut’s precariat – the poorest of the poor – Labaki’s latest movie, “Capharnaum,” seems a very different beast.
It tells the story of Zain (Zain al-Rafeea), the young son of an undocumented father whose children have no official identity.
As the film opens, the boy’s standing in an examination room, stripped down to his dirty drawers.
“He’s lost his baby teeth,” a doctor informs the camera after gaping into Zain’s mouth. “I think he’s 12 or 13 years old.”
Zain is in prison for some crime. He’s in court – represented by Nadine al-Alam (Labaki) – because, after a joyless decade of childhood, he’s suing his parents for having given birth to him.
The courtroom drama is a genre premise but, in the plausibility of its premise and conclusion, “Capharnaum” is most akin to a fairy tale (the G-rated kind). The narrative detail may be a good deal darker than the tropes of Labaki’s previous movies, but her storytelling retains its sweet, crowd-pleasing frosting.
The courtroom drama uses testimony to recount how the characters got here. “Capharnaum” occasionally returns to the proceedings for teary or teasing testimony from the characters, but most of the story is told in flashback. It’s a story arc that will be familiar to any fan of Hollywood underdog movies.
As the oldest boy (one older male sibling is in prison), Zain’s childhood is miserable enough. While his father doesn’t do much, Zain and his four or five sisters are put to work.
In the evenings, the kids are deployed to peddle plastic glasses of fruit juice, and Zain must keep an eye on his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam), who’s started attracting male attention.
The drug trade appears to be a mainstay of the family income. The story introduces Zain moving from pharmacy to pharmacy with a battered prescription for the pain killer Tramadol. Mom (Kawthar al-Haddad) is expert at powdering Tramadol tablets and distilling them in water – sold for LL1,000 (66 cents) a shot.
None of the kids are in school, and Zain spends his days working for Assaad, an indolent shop owner with a creepy interest in Sahar. Zain’s job is entangled in his family’s debts to Assaad, who allows them to squat one of his father’s derelict flats.
Daytimes, that flat is sheer chaos (the meaning of “capharnaum”), with the infant youngest sister kept on the kitchen floor, chained to some immovable object.
Nighttimes, Zain and his sisters lie on a common mattress, while their parents copulate, on the other side of a hung blanket.
A crisis sees Zain flee his family and he falls in with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a young Ethiopian who works odd jobs around town and struggles to cope with her own difficulties. A domestic servant who fell pregnant and was forced to run away from her Lebanese sponsor to avoid deportation, she now lives with her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) in an informal settlement on the edge of town.
Her forged papers are about to expire and she must raise $1,500 needed to buy a new one from a slug named Aspro – who, when not selling forged papers, buys infants for sale and traffics desperate migrants.
The bleak world that Labaki evokes here has been a part of this country’s social landscape for decades. It’s become more difficult to ignore Lebanon’s precariat since their numbers swelled in the flood of refugees fleeing Syria’s war.
In a sense, Europe’s struggle to cope with its migrant crisis has allowed part of the world to “catch up” with the less-glamorous side of the Lebanese experience. Labaki frames today’s crisis of displacement in a moral universe of agency and responsibility, victims and villains – thus the courtroom – but “Capharnaum” doesn’t set out simply to remind audiences of today’s misery.
That job’s being done by news reportage and documentary film that provoke, at best, anger and despair and, at worst, indifference.
Like all her films, this one aspires to confect characters that worldwide audiences can embrace. It’s the business of commercial cinema, and she employs time-tested techniques to cajole audiences to play along.
The film’s highly illustrative orchestral score – composed by Labaki’s longtime collaborator Khaled Mouzanar – has been calibrated to coax out compassion, with tragic and melodramatic sequences accompanied by tremulous solo piano, plaintive solo strings.
Swelling ensemble strings signal especially teary moments.
Naturally the wrenching melancholy evoked in the film is made much easier to ingest by the moments of levity she sprinkles into the mix.
After Zain flees home, for instance, he encounters an eccentric older gentleman wearing a Spiderman costume – with a cockroach on the chest rather than a spider.
“I’m not him, dear,” Cockroachman tells Zain, who’s been staring in wonderment. “I just look like him.”
The gent steps off the bus at the Luna Park on Beirut’s seaside Corniche, where Zain meets Rahil and Yonas. Shiferaw is a highly appealing figure, and the youngsters playing Zain and Yonas are unassailably cute, creating an engine of sweet comedy and pathos that sustains the film.
Not everyone is emotionally moved by Labaki’s cinema. For some, her films’ sweetness is cloying and irritatingly sentimental. For others, the interest in the poor people that populate the story of “Capharnaum” – indeed the compulsion to make films that fictionalize and commodify human tragedies like the migrant crisis – can seem utilitarian, if not downright opportunistic.
Labaki’s films are undeniably well-crafted. That’s why they have been selected by blue-chip film festivals (like Cannes, where “Capharnaum” won a jury prize this past spring), are picked up by international distributors – and chosen to represent Lebanon in the foreign-language Oscar competition.
“Capharnaum” is screening in Beirut-area cinemas.