From the opening shot of Capernaum — a filthy, half-naked Lebanese boy who appear to be 8 or 9, but who we learn is at least 12 — the abiding tone that bleeds from this film is anger. The boy, Zain (Zain al-Rafeea), has been sentenced to five years in juvenile detention for stabbing someone, but now is back in court, suing his parents for neglect. In flashbacks, we learn what led up to this situation.
The set up actually smacks of melodrama — we don’t know until near the end who he stabbed, why, or what became of the victim — but it’s just a conceit around which director Nadine Labaki constructs a harrowing document of life on the fringe of society.
Zain is the second oldest — though he’s not sure his birthdate, or even his age — of a family, but even he isn’t sure how many kids there are. He’s closest to his sister Sahar, but at just 11, she’s already captured the sexual designs of a 20-something shopkeeper who essentially bargains to buy her from their parents, neither of whom have gainful employment. Disgusted, Zain runs away from home, and while life on the streets is tough, he at least meets an illegal immigrant and her 1-year-old son, and they forge a kind of ad hoc family. But the apparent unfairness of immigration, employers, merchants, schemers and pedophiles takes a toll on all of them.
As bleak as much of the content of Capernaum is, Labaki is less interested in sentimentality and sadness than in provoking outrage; it’s more like Winter’s Bone than Oliver Twist, yet fully unique. Labaki places Zain and the infant in a series of dangerous situations, photographed mostly from their eye-levels, to place the viewer in the world of these urchins. In al-Rafeea, Labaki has an amazing instrument. Even at his most desperate, Zain is defiant and as strong as he can be. His confidence in his own survival buoys the film with a glimmer of hope, and as tortured as life is portrayed, the indomitability of the human spirit. Now playing the Angelika Mockingbird Station.
Interestingly, there is onstage in Dallas right now a piece with a similar construction. Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, how at the Kalita from the Dallas Theater Center, also begins with the aftermath of an horrendous crime, the details of which we learn about in flashback. And while it feels more gimmicky than Capernaum does, Sweat manages to say a whole helluva lot about the state of America in the age of Trump.
That’s especially interesting because, for the most part, it takes place at the outbreak of 2000 — before Bush-Gore and 9/11 and the economic collapse. In an industrial town in Pennsylvania, factor workers congregate after work at a local bar to hash over the day and celebrate milestones. There is talk of layoffs or even a strike, but also a job opening in management being offered to someone who works the floor. Cynthia (Liz Mikel), who is black, has decided to apply for the post, to the surprise of her friend Tracey (Sally Vahle), who is white as has worked at the plant a few years longer. When Cynthia lands the job, it creates a rift between the woman, which takes on elements not just or race and friendship but of class. Is Cynthia still “one of us?” Who is owed the greatest loyalty?
Sweat could easily digress into vitriolic name-calling and side-choosing, but Nottage’s style is more sophisticated than that. There aren’t good guys and bad guys here — not even Cynthia and Tracey’s sons, Chris (Ace Anderson) and Jason (Kyle Igneczi), who are the ones who committed the terrible crime that occurs at its climax. Rather, everyone is self-interested and scared and tribal. Situations create feelings of suspicion and anxiety. With so much emotion running hot, violence seems inevitable.
Which is partly how it relates to the bifurcation of the America of today — not just in the Rust Belt, but on social media and dinner tables across the country. When outside forces — whether they be selfish, conniving corporations or man-child toilet tweeters with a bully pulpit — establish conditions for animosity (whether through fake news, layoffs, building walls, hatred toward immigrants or economics), the people will behave accordingly.
Mikel’s performance as Cynthia is the least detailed of the leads — her confusion seems exacerbated by her own enforced ignorance — but Vahle’s bitterness feels all-too-real, her desperation at being a untrained middle-aged woman in a town without opportunities well-earned. Kenajuan Bentley, as Cynthia’s layabout ex-husband, delivers my favorite performance. He’s as close as the show comes to a villain — he’s a bad husband and father, but he also feels entirely accurate, the result of what happens when society disregards its citizens. Sweat could be stentorian and overly political, but instead ends up something better: Human. Now playing through Feb. 10.
— Arnold Wayne Jones