Capernaum marks a tremendous step forward for filmmaker Nadine Labaki, as director’s first two efforts, 2007’s Caramel and 2011’s Where Do We Go Now?, came off as unfocused, amateurish misfires riddled with laugh-free instances of comedic relief. Capernaum, which details the hardscrabble exploits of an impoverished 12-year-old (Zain Al Rafeea’s Zain), is a gritty, often hard-to-watch drama that pulls very few punches and, thankfully, contains little in the way of levity, which ensures that it is, for the bulk of its slightly overlong running time, an engrossing portrait of extreme destitution as seen through the eyes of a much-older-than-his years young boy. It’s a vibe that’s perpetuated by Al Rafeea’s often stunningly authentic performance, as the actor, making his debut here, delivers a consistently captivating turn that elevates the picture even through its more overtly meandering stretches. And although the movie admittedly does suffer from an often relentlessly grim outlook (ie it’s all just so bleak), Capernaum nevertheless (and ultimately) comes off as a tremendously satisfying (and even partially uplifting) endeavor that hopefully marks a first step in an entirely new direction for Labaki.

***1/2 out of ****

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