Nadine Labaki goes deep into a child's despair in Capernaum, a contrived social realist melodrama that's nonetheless distinctly moving. It's shot through with earnest, vivid sincerity, and gets just enough details right to ensure that it doesn't cross a line into shameless exploitation, though that it courts it at all is not a flattering quality. Indeed, Labaki arguably courts exploitativeness intentionally, ever apparently intent on drawing out the most intense emotional response possible from each scene, as misery piles on misery. Streaks of sentimentality provide little relief, rather serving to soap up material already prone to soapiness, and narrative developments that appear similarly designed to shatter said misery are no more effective, eventually only undermining the movie's successes by stretching credulity far past its limit. And yet Capernaum keeps its head above water, ever staring down its own self-inflicted adversities with the resolute determination to make its point and to make it effectively. And somehow, it does.
Labaki strikes the same chord throughout, weaving a narrative that simply twists around and around the one thematic thread; it's a compelling chord, one that she strikes with confidence and in good faith. If her methods are manipulative, her aims are noble, and she keeps striking away at that chord until she's either won you over or driven you away. For modulation, we turn to her lead, the unreasonably talented young Zain al Rafeea, in what Labaki likely intends to be a landmark youth performance a la Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. This movie is no landmark, alas, but here her sincerity pays its most generous dividend: al Rafeea is every bit as good as Leaud was nearly 60 years earlier in his career-making role, so good that one is forced to conclude that he's nothing less than a natural genius in the art of acting. Capernaum hardly leaves his side, seems reluctant to even turn its gaze from his, whose unfussy, highly expressive honesty and compassion are all the variation a viewer could need when the movie becomes monotonous, and all the consistency a viewer could need when it starts to go off the rails.
In fact, the entire cast is quite marvellous, blessed as they are with a screenplay whose sole aspirations seem to be to make a political point and to furnish great performances. It is, therein, a screenplay lacking in several necessary components for the creation of a great work of art, but it's remarkably successful in achieving those aspirations. Cumbersome as it may be, Capernaum inescapably leaves its (Western) audience more aware of the social issues it explores and more amenable to protecting against them, though its closing chapter lets that audience off the hook with a series of preposterous salves to problems that previously, and realistically, seemed unsolvable. Labaki doesn't seem to want to work at climbing out of the hole she's dug for her movie, having supplied no viable escape routes along the way. She digs deep in one small space in one clear direction, then effectively abandons the dig altogether, throws a cover over the hole and declares everything resolved; Capernaum's awkward final stretch is rescued only by its final shot, which possesses the kind of power to communicate its message more powerfully than anything before it. Al Rafeea makes the journey worth it, though he too is thus yet another child carrying the burden of problems beyond his making. His is a performance for the ages - perhaps in another six decades, we'll recall his debut when another young maverick makes theirs - in a movie-of-the-week.