Zain’s story in Capernaum (Zain Al-Rafeea) is relatively straightforward: survival. However it intertwines a multitude of other issues, and played out in a complex society that seemingly has little regard for its people. This film is challenging to say the least, it’s also brilliant.

12 year old Zain’s extended family live in squalor hand to mouth in Beirut, Lebanon. He and his sisters are forced to selling juices on the streets, or crushing up tramadol that’s then smuggled into prisons infused into garments! Their father has given up on life, their home is derelict. There’s very little privacy with the family sleeping in a couple of rooms literally piled up on each other. Though the family work and play together he has a closer relationship with his sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) which is torn apart by a combination of custom and cowardice.

Zain runs away and he befriends Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) an Ethiopian cleaner who has a baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Working and just about making ends meet Rahil welcomes Zain to her home in a shanty town. They settle in to as normal a life as can be possible with Zain looking after Yonas. To compound matters Rahil is the target of a trader who can give her the papers she needs to stay in the country, for a price.

Rahil is picked up for not having her papers and Zain then takes on the role of Yonas’s guardian. With resolve, cunning and intelligence he gets so far until he too succumbs to pressure, forcing him to take an unimaginable decision.

Returning home, he finds that his father is now a complete mess and what little regard Zain had for him is lost on hearing some tragic news that drives him to take desperate actions that land him in prison. Taking us back to where the film actually opens with Zain pulled into court (having already been sentenced), to answer questions before a judge and his parents.

What staggers is the casual inhumanity depicted in Capernaum. As Zain deals with local storekeepers who knowingly sell them short, to the barbarity of child abuse, slavery and people trafficking, it’s all just business. A society that is almost completely transactional, bereft of almost any moral value or guidance.

Nadine Labaki’s direction and screenplay drifts in and out of the documentary format taking us through the streets (The heat and grime are cloying.), homes and markets laying open the wretched conditions of the people. The cast are mainly amateur so there’s a looseness about their performances that gives the film its authenticity.

As desperate as it may appear the film is not completely devoid of hope. Zain’s actions are at times very questionable but there is arguably a moral thread running through them. His actions challenge that community and society; that some of their practices and traditions are no longer acceptable.