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Two spectacular performers grace the Lebanese film "Capernaum" and one of them is just a baby. Literally.

I've long had a theory that bad actors immediately become better if they're forced to hold onto a squirming baby, because babies can't do anything but be honest and the people holding them have to respond in kind.

Theoretically, all babies are great actors, but the one in "Capernaum," a little girl named Boluwatife Treasure Bankole who pulls a Linda Hunt and plays a boy named Yonas, is something special. She's alert, reacts to everything anyone else does, imitates the behavior of other characters in a way that alternately surprises and irritates them, and, over the course of the film, learns to walk. Try that, Christian Bale.

The other discovery in "Capernaum," which made the Oscar shortlist for best foreign film, is gravely charismatic Zain Al Rafeea. He plays a resourceful 12-year-old named Zain who, as the movie opens, is suing his parents. Why? "Because I was born," he tells the judge.

Flashbacks reveal how the Beirut resident got to this Dickensian place. Instead of going to school, Zain works a variety of jobs and closely guards his younger sister, Sahar, because he suspects that his parents plan to sell her into prostitution. He's right, and, when he's unable to save her, Zain takes off, ultimately becoming the babysitter for Yonas, which leads to a series of baby-and-boy adventures that would be funny and poignant if both weren't constantly at risk of violence, exploitation and worse.

Very much in the tradition of Italian Neorealist classics such as "The Bicycle Thief," this is a bleak drama that follows its leading character on an increasingly desperate journey. Like the tough-hided protagonists of those movies, Zain is an instinctive caretaker who seems incapable of putting himself first (he recoils when a stranger offers him some food, as if the notion of kindness is foreign to him).

Writer/director Nadine Labaki does beautiful work with her nonprofessional cast, most of whom are refugees, and her non-chronological structure builds unhurried suspense into the travails of Zain. We know he'll survive to make it into the courtroom, but what will he lose along the way?

One possibility is that he will lose Yonas since, as capable as Zain is, he's not ready to raise a kid. Also, back at the home he escaped, there are a half-dozen younger brothers and sisters who could be headed for the same fate as Sahar. Maybe he can take what he has learned and help them? It's devastating that so many lives depend on the abilities of a child but "Capernaum" is saved from utter bleakness by Labaki's belief in the spirit of Zain and others like him, who battle long odds to make the world a better place.

A lot remains up in the air as "Capernaum" concludes. While it's not a happily-ever-after Hollywood ending, it is, at least, open-ended. And that, "Capernaum" suggests, is probably the most that Zain and company can hope for.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367 • @HewittStrib


Capernaum

★★★½ out of 4 stars

Rating: R for language, disturbing situations.

Theater: Uptown.