Dir: Nadine Labaki; Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Yousef. Cert 15, 126 mins

The title of Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated feature means “chaos”, and that is what the story provides. Capernaum takes its place alongside films like Walter Salles’s Central Station and Hector Babenco’s Pixote as among the best depictions of street kids teaching themselves how to survive in worlds in which they suffer from extreme deprivation and neglect. This is virtuoso filmmaking which transcends its own occasionally murky and clumsy plotting and lurches into extreme sentimentality.

Zain (superbly played by newcomer Zain Al Rafeea) is a 12 or 13-year-old boy. He doesn’t have papers or a birth certificate and so doesn’t know precisely when he was born but that’s the age the dentist who examines his teeth puts him at. He is growing up in poverty in Beirut with his mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad), father Selim (Fadi Kamel Yousef) and various siblings. The parents can barely afford to feed themselves, let alone their kids. They are planning to marry off Zain’s younger sister to a local businessman, a decision which disgusts him.

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It takes a while to work out the timeframe. Zain is seen in handcuffs. He is under arrest for “stabbing a son of a bitch” but wants to sue his own parents for bringing him into the world. Labaki tells his story in flashback.

Zain is a little street warrior, foul-mouthed, resourceful and vulnerable when you least expect it. He is tiny but fearless. Labaki and her cinematographer Christopher Aoun shoot from a child’s eye point of view, filming from a low angle and shooting the urban scenes in lithe and fluid fashion.

The Beirut shown here is a seething, dilapidated, maze-like metropolis. Families live in decaying apartments with ancient plumbing. Few adults have conventional jobs and kids don’t go to school. Bartering and street hawking are the order of the day. Zain’s survival skills are well-honed. One of the most poignant early scenes comes when he desperately tries to help his sister conceal her period. He knows, even if she doesn’t, that their parents will use her maturation as an excuse to sell her off to a wealthy husband.

The storytelling has a humour, lyricism and zest that belies the grimness of the subject matter. Zain is always looking for the main chance. He also has a very caustic tongue. There is something comic in the way this cherubic boy curses the adults who patronise him or try to cheat him.

When Zain runs away from home, the film takes on a Huck Finn-like quality. He meets a wizened old man dressed incongruously like a superhero (and nicknamed Cockroach Man) and, through him, ends up at an old fairground. It’s here he encounters cleaning woman Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who takes pity on him. She is an African immigrant without the right legal papers to be working in the country. She has a baby boy, Jonas, and somehow has to care for him during and between shifts. Rahil press gangs Zain to look after the baby. This prompts some of the most delightful moments in the film. Zain uses all his ingenuity to keep Jonas happy. He plays drums for the toddler. He helps him to watch cartoons on a neighbour’s TV through a cleverly positioned mirror, and even fashions a pram for him from a stolen skateboard. They make a very appealing double act. However, when Rahil fails to come home Zain is forced to take desperate measures to keep the baby fed.

Much of Capernaum feels improvised. The version of the film released this week in British cinemas is shorter than the cut shown in Cannes last year. In its weaker moments, the storytelling becomes very haphazard. Labaki will show random street scenes which don’t lead anywhere in particular and will then cut back to the court case where the boy is in the dock. Zain is a fighter. This distinguishes him from almost everybody else in his orbit ,and especially from the adults who’ve given in to extreme fatalism. “Who gives a shit about me, you or any of us,” one grownup laments, likening himself and his family to nothing more than insects.

Labaki never pulls back to give us a broader perspective on her characters. We don’t learn why Zain and his family are trapped in poverty or what has brought Rahil to Lebanon. Nor do we discover much about the father of her child. There is no sermonising about Middle Eastern politics. Capernaum veers between harsh social realism and a more playful and escapist style of storytelling. As a result, the film is very uneven. Nonetheless, the best moments here are remarkable. Labaki elicits an astonishing performance from her young lead. He’s an irrepressible figure with such an inbuilt sense of moral decency the film seems upbeat and optimistic, even at its darkest moments.

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