The film starts near the end. Zain is being brought to court from a juvenile detention centre to sue his parents for having brought him into the world. When we see in lengthy flashback what that world was like for him, we are inclined to agree. Zain is supposed to be 12 years old, but looks a squalid age eight. His birth was never registered, he has never been to school. He, his parents and a crowd of brothers and sisters live in a Beirut slum called Capernaum. He works all day for Assaad a neighbouring store owner -- running errands, making deliveries, hauling stuff up long flights of stairs. As a business sideline Zain's family peddles Tramadol.
One day Zain realizes that his beloved sister Sahar, age 11, has begun menstruating. He washes out her panties for her, steals sanitary towels for her, warns her not to throw the used ones out in case their mother discovers them. Of course she does. Sahar is married off to Assaad in exchange for some chickens. Zain runs away. He is befriended by Rahil, an Ethiopian illegal immigrant. She feeds him, washes him, lets him stay, and in return he helps look after her baby boy called Yonas. One day Rahil is picked up by the police and Zain is left looking after the baby. When he finds Rahil's home has been locked up with her belongings thrown out in the street, he finds his only option is to hand over Yonas to Aspro (who deals in false ID documents and is also a people smuggler). Aspro promises Zain he will find Yonas a wonderful home with wonderful parents. He also tells Zain he can help him leave for Turkey, or even Sweden. All he needs is some sort of ID. He returns to the family home in search of just that, not knowing that his parents never registered his birth. Besides receiving a beating, he finds out that Sahar is dead. She became pregnant, and then bled to death outside the hospital. The hospital would not admit her because she had no ID. Zain grabs a knife and rushes out to attack Assaad.
So, here we have a fullblown melodrama: the poor with no future; an unscrupulous trafficker who robs defenceless babies and tricks young boys; a young girl who dies before she even has a chance to live. All narrated soberly, coldly, heart-breakingly.
The final ending has a tinge of hope. Thanks to Caritas little Yonas is rescued before he can be shipped off to be sold and is reunited with his mother. Zain finally smiles into the camera as his photograph is taken for his much needed ID. He will never recuperate his childhood. He may begin to enjoy his youth.
This is a powerful, deeply moving film. Nadine Labaki is an accomplished young actress and filmmaker, whose previous work has focused mainly on women, their lives, hopes and aspirations (Caramel, 2007; Where do we go from here? 2011), Here the theme is relentless, grinding poverty. In all his short life young Zain has never known anything but poverty, work, deprivation. He has never slept in a real bed. He is a survivor, a warrior, a master of making do, dealing with impossible difficulties, managing to go on living. Zain Al Rafeea is superb in the part, as indeed is the whole cast, mainly first-time actors. Christopher Aoun, a German-Lebanese cinematographer portrays with documentary-style veracity the grim starkness of this Beirut slum.