Tag Archives: B+

CAPARNAUM

Producer: Khaled Mouzanar and Michel Merkt
Director: Nadine Labaki
Writer: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Kestouani, Georges Khabbaz and Khaled Mouzanar
Stars: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Cedra Izam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Nour el Husseni, Farah Hasno, Elias Khoury and Nadine Labaki
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B+

Films about homeless children struggling to survive alone in the streets cannot help but carry a powerful emotional impact—as witness the first half of the recent “Lion,” though Garth Davis’ adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s novel stumbled in its second section. Nadine Labaki’s “Caparnaum,” a title which translates as “Chaos,” also wields enormous resonance, though it too makes a decision at the very end that dilutes it.

Populated by non-professional actors, the film, written by Labaki and four others, centers on Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a boy of twelve (or approximately so: his parents neglected to secure a birth certificate for him, or to celebrate his birthdays) who lives with his neglectful mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and father Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) in a squalid Beirut apartment with a bevy of brothers and sisters. He works as a delivery boy for Assadd (Nour el Husseini), who lusts after his favorite sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam), who is even younger than he. Zain tries to protect herm but the family’s flat is owned by Assadd’s father, and the clan seems to survive, though precariously, by mixing prescription drugs into juice and having the children sell the result to passersby on the street.

When Souad and Selim effectively sell Sahar to Assadd, Zain rebels and goes off on his own to a town on the coast. In his effort to find food and shelter, he encounters Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee who’s working a variety of jobs in order to raise her darling your son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, who’s actually a girl). Though in desperate straits herself—she’s trying to raise the money to buy a fake I.D. that would allow her to stay in the country legally—she befriends Zain and brings him home to take care of Yonas while she’s away at work. The three become a virtual family, though Zain clearly chafes at keeping inside the tiny flat all day.

A crisis comes when Rahil is arrested and jailed as an illegal, and Zain, not knowing where she’s gone, struggles to care for Yonas on his own. He eventually reverts to his family’s old practice or preparing extra-fortified juice to sell on the street, with only marginal success. Taking a bit of advice offered by another street child, a Syrian exile named Maysoun (Farah Hasno), he applies for assistance from a refugee agency, pretending to be Syrian himself (we see him practicing a Syrian accent, though the effect will be lost on American audiences). But when the landlord locks him and Yonas out of Rahil’s shantytown flat, he has no choice but to turn to Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), a shady crook who’s been trying to convince Rahil to turn Yonas over to him, presumably for sale to a family, in return for her I.D.

Returning home at long last, Zain finds his family worse off than when he’d left, and in response to a tragedy he feels more deeply than his parents do, he commits an act that lands him in juvenile detention. Unbeknownst to him, he and Rahil are very close to one another in prison.

All of this is told in flashbacks that emerge during a plot device that might disturb some viewers—a trial, presided over by an avuncular judge (Elias Khoury), in which the jailed Zain brings suit against his parents for giving him birth (and, by their recklessness and neglect, dooming him to the misery he has endured). Zain’s represented in court by Nadine, a censorious attorney played by Labaki herself, who helps him present his case forcefully, though Souad and Selim have the opportunity to say their piece as well, and while it doesn’t make them any less horrible, it does provide a bit of understanding.

The periodic court sequences interrupt the narrative flow of “Caparnaum,” but a more serious problem comes at the very close, when Labaki feels compelled to add a closing montage that ends things on a positive note for not just one but several characters, while meting punishment where it’s due. As much of a relief this might provide to the audience, it doesn’t feel earned given all that’s preceded, and in particular closing the picture with a freeze-frame of Zain that can’t help but remind you of Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” is a miscalculation, since its function is so very different.

Nonetheless Labaki and her team—particularly cinematographer Christopher Aoun—do a fine job of creating a gritty, realistic ambience under what must have been difficult practical circumstances, and her non-professional actors deliver heartbreaking performances. Al Rafeea, who actually was a delivery boy, carries the film on his slender shoulders, but he’s certainly matched by Shiferaw, who conveys the desperation of a mother torn from her child with real conviction, while Al Haddad and Youssef are equally persuasive as the boy’s conflicted parents.

Despite the connotations of its title, “Caparnaum” proves an exceptionally disciplined piece of work, portraying the brutal realities of life for many, particularly children, in a land racked by political, social and economic turmoil. The attempt at an upbeat denouement might be an artistic mistake, but in human terms it’s an understandable one.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Producer: Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, Barry Jenkins, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Megan Ellison
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins
Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Emily Rios, Ed Skrein, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Milanni Mines and Ethan Barrett
Studio: Annapurna Pictures

B+

From this adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, it’s obvious that Barry Jenkins has great reverence for the author’s work—a bit too much, perhaps. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is fastidious and elegant, but also extremely languid. The dreamlike quality Jenkins brings to the material is certainly evocative, but it minimizes the anger that underlies the narrative—and retains its topicality today—instead emphasizing the melancholy resignation that also infuses the tale. That creative choice, while defensible, is also provocative.

In Jenkins’ hands, “Beale Street” is essentially a thoughtful, visually striking elegy to a beautiful love that’s cruelly thwarted by a legal system perverted by racial bigotry. The lovers are Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), who are introduced at nineteen and twenty-two, serenely proceeding hand-in-hand in a blissful riverside walk. Flashbacks and inserts interspersed throughout, along with voiceover by Tish lifted, for the most part, directly from the novel, tell us that they’ve known one another since childhood (they’re played as kids by Milanni Mines and Ethan Barrett), and are now planning to get married.

But almost immediately the scene shifts to the interior of a jail, where Fonny, a sculptor, is incarcerated on charges of rape. Visiting him there, Tish informs him through the visitors’ glass that she’s pregnant. She’s also told her mother Sharon (Regina King), and together they inform her father Joe (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), who are overjoyed after their initial shock.

The four of them then invite Fonny’s parents over to tell them the news. His father Frank (Michael Beach) responds with enthusiasm, but his censorious church-lady mother (Aunjanue Ellis), who’s always thought Tish beneath her boy, expresses withering contempt, as does his equally judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne). The sequence ends in recriminations as Frank explodes against his wife and Sharon and Ernestine come to Tish’s defense.

Gradually the truth about Fonny’s arrest is revealed. He’s been framed by a snarling, racist cop named Bell (Ed Skrein), whom he offended while out walking with Tish. His innocence is beyond doubt: he has an alibi, since he and Tish were with an old friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), at the time of the assault. But as we learn from the long conversation between the two men, Daniel has just been paroled from prison himself—he served a couple of years for car theft, though he can’t drive—and his testimony is simply dismissed in the face of a positive identification from the victim, Victoria (Emily Rios), who’s fled the States for her native Puerto Rico. Eventually Fonny’s lawyer Hayward (Finn Wittrock), who’s taken the case as a matter of principle despite the misgiving of his partners, tracks her down, but when Sharon travels to the island to beg her to recant the ID—one clearly imposed on her during a line-up—Victoria breaks down and refuses.

The message of how the system is stacked against black men is driven home by Fonny’s story, but the film doesn’t ignore occasional rays of light that occur during his time with Tish: the intervention of an elderly woman when Bell first tries to take Fonny in on a flimsy pretext, for example, or the willingness of a young building owner (Dave Franco, in a gentle turn that’s quite a departure from his usual in-your-face style) to rent the couple a loft when they’re been repeatedly refused by others. And, of course, the flashbacks, including the scenes of their lovemaking, are suffused with tenderness.

There are moments of considerable power in the film—the tense scene with Ellis, the confrontation between Sharon and Victoria—but for the most part Jenkins presents the events, however tense, in a restrained, understated fashion and at a deliberate pace. Together with production designer Mark Friedberg, costumer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, cinematographer James Laxton and editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, he frames the visuals with scrupulous care, paying particular attention to shading and juxtaposing the colors for optimal effect. The morose score by Nicholas Britell, as well as some soulful pop interjections, add to the somber tone.

The acting is of a piece with that approach as well. Though there are sequences of overt passion (as in Victoria’s outburst of anguish), the cast generally keep emotions in check. James shows a few flashes of fury, but usually he’s a picture of suppressed anger, and his scenes with Layne are marked by sheer sweetness. Layne depicts Tish as shy and subdued even at the most tortuous moments (the childbirth sequence apart, of course). Although Ellis is allowed—even encouraged—to take her holier-than-thou mother to the point of caricature, the rest of the cast—even King—offer controlled performances similar to those of Layne and James, true to Jenkins’ take on the material as a rueful meditation on how things are rather than an impassioned howl over that cruel reality.

Some might find that approach as entirely too soft-grained and genteel to do full justice to Baldwin’s book, preferring a more overtly outraged depiction of such a sadly common tragedy. On its own terms, however, this quietly mournful vision is a perfectly valid take on the novel: Memphis’ Beale Street, after all, is inextricably linked with the blues, and what it lacks in immediate visceral impact the film makes up for in lingering emotional resonance, in the recognition that Baldwin’s observations about the plight of young black men in America are no less true nearly half a century later than they were when he penned them. Indeed, they may be even more so.