by / Feb. 14, 2019 11am EST

Capernaum, the title of Nadine Labaki’s Oscar nominee (for Best Foreign Language Film) means something like “chaos“ in both Hebrew and Arabic. The title is all too apt, aesthetically and sociologically. The film is set in a part of Beirut, Lebanon that tourists never visit and that most of the city’s more privileged residents have probably rarely if ever entered. It’s a teeming, physically and morally squalid world, a large Third World enclave that doesn’t seem connected to the rest of the city. In this dense, sometimes dangerous society Labaki’s very young, unlikely hero, Zain (Zain al-Rafeea), strives to survive.

In a way, Zain is a living symbol of this lumpen area. Asked his age by a court early in the movie, he replies he may be 12 but he’s not sure. Zain’s birth was never recorded by his penny-ante criminal parents, so he exists outside of official recognition.

Capernaum begins in a jail and courtroom and is bookended by the same setting at the end. Much of what transpires in between is a flashback detailing how he got there. Before that begins, he tells the judge (Elias Khoury, a retired Lebanese jurist) that he wants to sue his parents.

Living a hardscrabble life with his parents, Zain is furious and dispirited when they effectively sell his 11-year-old sister Sahar into marriage to their landlord’s adult son despite Zain’s desperate efforts. Leaving this home, he is reduced to sleeping on a seat in a shabby amusement park’s Ferris wheel and begging for food. A young Ethiopian woman, Tigest (Yoadanos Shiferaw), who cleans in the park, takes him in and lets him mind her infant son while she works. Zain applies himself conscientiously to this new responsibility and the three of them function like a kind of family, makeshift like so much of what surrounds them. This tender respite for Zain will, of course, be cruelly interrupted.

Amid Labaki’s sprawling setting and the abruptly changing focuses of her probing, restless camera, the image of Zain’s face in close-ups, pensive or sad-eyed, yet resolute, is perhaps the most memorable. The young star was an illiterate Syrian refugee in Beirut when he was cast. He couldn’t study a script, of course, or memorize lines in a conventional way, and some of his work here may be improvised, but in any case, it’s well-nigh perfect, possibly due in part to al-Fafeea’s own roots in actual circumstances resembling some of what’s portrayed in Capernaum. The whole cast, many of them non-professionals, is very effective.

Labaki’s central character is certainly heroic in his fashion, and his resolve and grasp of practical possibilities may lead you to feel, as I did, that he’d be the “man” to rely on in a crisis.

Labaki captures the beleaguered lives and precarious circumstances of her characters, but the film’s last moments can seem a bit of a departure. Zain’s court suit is almost a (Frank) Capraesque device and the very brief, tentative happy ending doesn’t quite fit.

That leaves a lot of closely observed, unusually powerful filmmaking.

Capernaum is tentatively scheduled to open Friday, March 8 at the Dipson Amherst or Dipson Eastern Hills theater.