Little Boy, Big World

Capernaum

by Brandon Thomas

“I want to sue my parents!” a defiant pre-teen child exclaims inside of a crowded courtroom. Everyone – his parents, the judge, the attorneys – appears stunned. As his initial outburst lingers in the air, the boy explains further:

“Because I was born.”

Our world can be a horrific place. Unfortunately, children aren’t spared from these horrors. Capernaum follows one child as he tries to make sense of his place in a world that’s constantly placing greater and greater hurdles in front of him.

The streets of Beirut are the playground for headstrong Zain (Zain Al Rafeea). When not selling cheap cups of juice in the gutter, Zain spends his days working in a small shop to appease his parent’s landlord. Even at such a young age, Zain has been tasked with providing for his large family. The abrasiveness of Zain’s demeanor is quickly overshadowed by his need to take care of his siblings and keep them all together.

Capernaum isn’t subtle about where it lays blame. The neglect from adults is directly responsible for the misery these children endure. Zain and his siblings are only valuable to their parents because of what they can provide for them; not because they’re human beings. Even the lone caring adult in Zain’s life puts him in a situation that no child should be in.

The movie isn’t a miserable experience by any means, but it doesn’t shy away from the hardships these characters suffer. In fact, that honesty is what makes Capernaum so compelling. Knowing there are real children like Zain who live this kind of bleak existence helps give the story weight.

Al Rafeea is a revelation in his acting debut. A real life Syrian refugee, Al Rafeea conveys a weariness that cannot be faked. He plays Zain as a hardened, street-smart kid, but allows the cracks in that facade to show. Zain wants the chance to be a regular kid, and those few moments when he is truly happy are simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking.

The honesty of the story and the lead performance make Capernaum a riveting experience.

Boy Meets World

Boy and the World

by Hope Madden

Often a joyous riot of colors and sounds, and just as often a somber and spare smattering of dehumanizing imagery, Boy and the World poignantly encapsulates the clashing emotions and evolving comprehension of the human spirit.

Ale Abreu’s Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film offers deceptively simple animation to pull you into complex ideas. Boy – the wee, titular character who is about to start quite an adventure – sees a wondrous, kaleidoscopic world saturated with confusing but fascinating sounds and images, colors and experiences.

But as thrilling and vibrant as these early moments are, Abreu’s vision is edged with cynicism. It’s an idea that takes hold sporadically, when industrialization depletes the chaotic energy from the screen, when scores of stooped stick figures lose their meager jobs, when urban blight changes the tone from primary colors to smoky browns and greys, and finally when animation gives over to live action footage of deforestation.

Though the filmmaker’s themes are always evident – occasionally less subtle than they might be – the heartbeat of the story is that of the imaginative, innocent Boy. It gives the whole film a touch of sadness, but balances the anger with an optimism and innocence that’s often beguiling.

A contagious score from Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat emboldens Abreu’s pictures, emphasizing the vibrancy of the individual’s spirit as well as the celebration of human connection.

Boy’s journey is a circuitous one, a coming of age and acceptance informed by struggle and nostalgia but brightened with bursts of color.

There is something terribly lonesome but simultaneously jubilant about Boy and the World. It’s a heady mix from a confident new filmmaker, and a welcome addition to an entirely laudable set of animated Oscar contenders.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

A Bountiful Harvest

Tangerines
by Hope Madden

It’s 1992 in what had recently been the Soviet Union. The Abkhazians of western Georgia have declared independence and Civil War has broken out. The battle is almost at Ivo’s door, but even as natives kill for the land under his feet, the Estonian immigrant tends the Tangerines. He and a neighbor – also Estonian by birth – hope to harvest the crop before it is lost to the war.

It’s a lovely central image: two elderly men with no dog in the fight working against the clock tending to the region’s natural bounty. Unfortunately, the fight comes knocking. Gunplay between three Georgians and two Chechen mercenaries leaves two wounded men – one from either side of the battle – in Ivo’s care.

Writer/director Zaza Urushadze’s elegant film garnered nominations for best foreign language film from the Academy, Golden Globes and others, and rightly so. His succinct screenplay relies on understatement and the power in silence and in action to convey its pacifist message. The timeless ideas embedded in this intimate setting become potent. While the theme is never in doubt, Urushadze’s unadorned film never feels preachy.

A great deal of that success lies in Lambit Ulfsak’s powerful performance as Ivo. He has an amazing presence, inhabiting this character with weary wisdom. Resolute and morally level-headed, Ivo is impossible not to respect. He’s the film’s conscience and through him we quietly witness a powerful humanity – one that the film would like to see infect us all.

There are three other principals – Giorgi Nakashidze as the Chechen, and Misha Meskhi as the Georgian, and Elmo Nuganen as neighbor Margus. Each brings something muscular but tender to their role. Their work benefits from the dry humor and melancholy tone of Urushadze’s screenplay. The quiet evolution beneath their boisterous clashing feels more inevitable than predictable, which allows Urushadze’s point more poignancy.

We don’t get to see a lot of Estonian filmmaking over here, and that appears to be a shame. Ulfsak was recently named the country’s male performer of the century. It’s not hard to see why.

Verdict-4-0-Stars