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‘Capernaum’ is a harrowing tale about the human spirit under abject poverty

In terms of sheer quality the most packed Oscar category this year is also one of its most obscure – best foreign film. With the Oscar telecast’s new 3-hour time limit, I wonder if this category will even make it on the air but its five nominees have never been so highly honored.

The Mexican entry “Roma” not only is tied for this year’s most overall Oscar nominations (10), including high profile nods like Best Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actress, and Screenplay, it’s actually the frontrunner for Best Picture. A black and white film with subtitles!

The Polish film “Cold War” is itself up for three Academy Awards, including the prestigious categories of Best Director and Cinematography. And speaking of prestigious, the Japanese film “Shoplifters” has already won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or and stands at 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. All three films are available to see in Seattle right now, and a fourth nominee, the Lebanese film “Capernaum,” opens today. It’s also a Cannes Film Festival winner and another multiple Oscar nominee, including for Best Cinematography.

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“Capernaum” tells a harrowing tale of a 12-year-old boy born into abject poverty but making the best of it under rather dire circumstances. Zain lives with a half-dozen or so siblings — three to a mattress — in a makeshift couple of rooms in the slums of Beirut.

None of the children goes to school because none of them was registered at birth, due to the expense. So the kids spend their days selling their wares in the streets and/or delivering store items for their shop owner landlord.

When Zain’s cherished 11-year-old sister gets sold off in marriage to the landlord’s son, his outrage knows no bounds. He runs away from home and is eventually taken in by a friendly but illegal Ethiopian immigrant, a working mother of a one-year-old who lives in a shantytown outside Beirut.

The bulk of the movie consists of Zain taking care of the toddler while the mother’s away. As their circumstances become more and more desperate, the street-smart Zain becomes more and more industrious. He’s a shining embodiment of the resiliency of youth.

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The darkness of “Capernaum” is undeniable but so is the human spirit. Director Nadine Labaki has assembled a remarkable non-professional cast, most especially the boy playing Zain (Zain Al Rafeea.) He’s a Syrian refugee who brings both a necessary gravity and a natural charm to the demanding role. Equally brilliant is the one-year-old who interacts with Zain and his “mother” with uncanny presence.

In some ways, “Capernaum” seems very contemporary, given how it depicts the ongoing political crises of undocumented citizens, illegal immigrants, and international refugees. But it’s the universality of the human experience, and the compassion it elicits, that comes to the fore and gives the film its real power.

By the way, the fifth and final nominee for Best Foreign Film opens next week. “Never Look Away” is a German film made by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who’s already won one Oscar for his masterpiece, “The Lives of Others.”

The Oscars are two weeks from Sunday.

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