Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” is a poverty saga with a heart-in-your-throat urgency, a grueling tale of child endangerment and youthful resilience on Beirut’s sorriest streets that some viewers may absorb as little more than an adrenalized version of movie miserable-ism. And it is both unflinching and sentiment-driven in equal measure. But that’s also part of its special alchemy. Labaki’s mix of incredible nonprofessional actors and craftily engineered melodrama, which earned her the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival — she’s the first female Arab filmmaker to win a major award there — is often breathtaking in its intensity. (The film is also Lebanon’s submission to the Academy Awards.)
Translated as “Chaos,” and built around a boy’s odyssey of survival, “Capernaum” is anchored by a knockout kid performance, the kind that brings to mind churningly memorable portrayals of poor, teetering-edge youth in neorealist classics “Bicycle Thieves” and “Pixote.” Zain al Rafeea, a pint-size 12-year-old with wiry energy but the sadly knowing eyes of an outmatched prizefighter, plays Zain, whom we first meet in handcuffs being led into a courtroom from the prison where he’s serving a five-year term for stabbing someone. He’s not accused of anything this time, though. Zain is there to sue his negligent parents, Souad (Kawsar al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Yousef), for giving birth to him. (Asked his age by the judge, neither he nor his mom and dad seem to know.)
From so gimmicky a bracketing construct, though, comes the movie’s primary narrative pulse: the swirl of hardship that leads to the trial. Zain is one of many siblings living with their scraping, scamming parents in a cramped, decrepit apartment. Everyone’s under the thumb of shifty landlord Assaad (Nour El Husseini), who runs the nearby convenience store, and whose overtures to Zain’s 11-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) trigger the wary, street-savvy boy’s protective side. But when he can’t prevent the inevitable — his parents selling Sahar to Assaad for food — an angry, defiant Zain runs away.
A brief, empathetic exchange at an amusement park between Zain, looking for work, and cleaner Rahil (kind-eyed Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian woman who hides her infant son, Yonas, in the park’s bathroom, sparks a mutually beneficial arrangement: Zain’s babysitting in their leaky hovel for a roof and food. Looking after someone becomes Zain, but once more, the designs of an unscrupulous man — in this case, a market vendor (Alaa Chouchnieh) offering Rahil access to forged papers — upends any hope for this put-upon trio.
The kinetic realism of Labaki’s close-to-the-ground direction and Christopher Aoun’s agile cinematography — a hard swerve from the romantic style of her previous two features, the crowd-pleasers “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?” — is often a marvel to behold. Even more impressive, perhaps owing to Labaki’s parallel career as a sought-after actor (she plays an attorney in the courtroom scenes), is her ability with her untrained stars. She finds a magically resonant space between documentary-like vibe and dramatic performance that honors the characters’ inherent humanity while memorably framing the wretched circumstances that dictate their actions. Her direction of children, especially, most notably the increasingly fraught scenes with Zain looking after the wonderfully expressive Yonas — a movie toddler for the ages who will agitate your wish for a peaceful outcome to no end — are models for capturing the grace and need in beleaguered innocents.
At the end, when the action returns to Zain’s legal gambit, Labaki is driven to remind us, through some clunky twists in fate and a little grandstanding, that she’s as committed to “Capernaum” being a plea for solutions as a hard-driving drama. But after so fiercely rendered and artfully compassionate an achievement, can you blame her for a little preachiness? It in no way hobbles this powerful movie’s impact.
In Arabic with English subtitles
Rated: R, for language and some drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.