Syrian refugee shines in Oliver Twist role

Refugee Zain Al Rafeea plays a street-wise yet heartbreakingly naive kid in a slum who sues his parents for giving birth to him.
Refugee Zain Al Rafeea plays a street-wise yet heartbreakingly naive kid in a slum who sues his parents for giving birth to him.PHOTO: ANTICIPATE PICTURES

REVIEW / DRAMA

CAPERNAUM (NC16)

123 minutes/Opens tomorrow at GV Paya Lebar/3.5 stars

The story: The film opens in court. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a street kid in a Lebanese slum, is suing his parents for the act of giving birth to him, thus introducing him to a life of misery. In a flashback, he is shown to labour from morning till dusk, delivering gas bottles and hawking drinks. He is denied school because his parents have sold him into slavery in exchange for rent and food for his many siblings. Zain snaps and runs away into an underworld of oddballs, human traffickers, Syrian refugees and overstayers such as the Ethiopian cleaning woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw).


This Lebanese film is the winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where it is said to have won a 10-minute round of post-screening applause. It is also up for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film alongside Alfonso Cuaron's Roma and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters.

That acclaim should not be a surprise as this emotionally gripping but flawed work ticks all the checkboxes for a work that festival fans love - a tough social-realist drama centred around a child's point of view.

Lebanese film-maker Nadine Labaki has a knack for communicating the misery of life at the bottom without falling into the usual artistic traps of romanticisation (also known as "poverty porn") or its opposite, shock-value gruesomeness.

She portrays Zain's plight in matter-of-fact terms. In briskly edited scenes that give the impression of unrelenting drudgery without dwelling on it, Zain is shown hauling gas bottles across town on a cart and hurling surprisingly foul curses at the paedophiles and cheats that try his patience.

Thankfully, whoever created the English subtitles seems to have taken pains to transmit the pungency of the dialogue.

Some have accused Labaki of manipulation, of making an artless tearjerker that packs in too many tones and messages.

There is some truth to that claim - there are passages here, especially in the final scenes, that could have benefited from restraint.

What sticks in the mind, however, is the performance by boy actor Zain, a Syrian refugee discovered by Labaki. His part calls for him to be a near-feral, Oliver Twist of a boy - both street-wise and heartbreakingly naive.

Zain feels as if he was born to play the role. He even looks like Mark Lester, the child actor who played the title role in Oliver!, the 1968 film adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel about orphans and runaways on the streets of Victorian London.

The Dickens influence is strong here. Unfortunately, it has seeped into the film's weakest area, its dramatic structure, which can feel forced.

But what should stay in the mind are not the story details, but the impression of a class-divided Lebanon as seen through the eyes of one plucky, foul-mouthed boy.

• Capernaum screens exclusively at GV Paya Lebar tomorrow and on Saturday at 7pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2019, with the headline 'Syrian refugee shines in Oliver Twist role'. Print Edition | Subscribe