Zain Al Rafeea (left) and Cedra Izam play brother and sister in “Capernaum.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Zain Al Rafeea (left) and Cedra Izam play brother and sister in “Capernaum.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Oscar nominee from Lebanon details street kid’s harsh life

“Capernaum” benefits from an extremely charismatic child actor in the lead role.

This year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film represent one of the deepest rosters in years. Three wonderful films are already in release: “Roma,” “Cold War” and “Shoplifters.”

Another strong nominee opens locally this week. “Capernaum,” from Lebanon, is the kind of children-in-crisis movie that can come from any culture, any time.

Director Nadine Labaki goes into the streets of Beirut for a story that feels like an update on “Oliver Twist,” but without much promise of a happy ending. The central character is Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea, in his first role), a 12-year-old trying to survive against monumental circumstances.

He comes from a large family, but his parents aren’t exactly role models. Zain finally runs away from home after they essentially sell his 11-year-old sister to a neighborhood shopkeeper.

Zain is taken in by an Ethiopian refugee (Yordanos Shiferaw), who lives in a shack with her infant son (Treasure Bankole, actually a little girl). After a few days, Zain ends up being a caretaker to the baby.

As Zain struggles to fulfill this role, the film grows rich in detail. How do you get water when the tap turns off? How can you rig a system to watch the cartoons playing on the TV next door? How do you find “proof you’re a human being” — as one person puts it — when you don’t have papers?

Another reason this section soars is that the actors are so convincing. When I was taking notes while watching the film, I wrote down, “The baby is a great actor.” Sure enough, Treasure is incredibly expressive and has impeccable timing — even if she can’t really understand what she’s doing.

And Zain Al Rafeea gives one of those indelible child performances, showing the tough street-kid exterior while allowing the frightened vulnerability to show through. Like the classic Brazilian movie “Pixote,” this film moves you not just because of the harrowing circumstances but also because of the charisma of the young lead actor.

The film’s framing story shows Zain in a courtroom, where he is suing his parents (his lawyer is played by director Labaki). This idea feels a little like a contrivance — perhaps one element too many for a movie that thrives by showing grittiness, all unsparingly captured by Labaki’s handheld camera.

Maybe those courtroom sequences — shot in a different style from the rest of “Capernaum” — take place exclusively inside Zain’s imagination. That might be the only escape from an existence that otherwise offers no way out.

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