By Leah Greenblatt
October 17, 2019 at 01:45 PM EDT
National Geographic

Syrian war documentaries have become their own kind of grim cottage industry, from Last Men in Aleppo, Hell On Earth, and City of Ghosts to last year’s Oscar-winning The White Helmets. So it’s hardly surprising that the latest from director Feras Fayyad (who also helmed Last Men) feels both familiar and bleakly necessary.

And The Cave, his remarkable ground-level portrait of an underground hospital operating in the bombed-out husk of Damascus, does prove to be all those things. But it delivers something more and better, too: a moving, beautifully humanist story whose inevitable hardships are laced with real hope and levity. (Not unexpectedly, the film has already swept audience awards at several festivals, including Toronto).

Several years into Syria’s civil war, its capital city still retains some 400,000 residents who can hardly go outside their homes without risking death from President Bashar El-Assad’s Russian-backed military squads; still, there are places like the Cave, an underground bunker operating as well as it can as a kind of DIY ER without daylight, security, or often even the most basic supplies.

The doctors — including a mustachioed surgeon who blasts classical music to make up for the lack of anesthetic, and a young female pediatrician sometimes forced to fight her own patients for her right to be there — exist in a sort of bizarro-world version of a TV medical drama: scrambling in the bloody chaos of the operating room one moment, dealing with petty office politics or sneaking off for a desperately-needed snack or cigarette the next.

That Fayyad shows the hospital’s employees flirting, smoking, and throwing impromptu birthday parties for one another doesn’t make a mockery of their life-and-death occupations; in scene after scene, it only makes them feel more real. And that may be The Cave’s most enduring takeaway: that behind all the numbing news headlines are just people, flawed and funny and half the time scared out of their minds — but more courageous every day, in the simple act of showing up, than any human being should ever have to be. A–

(The Cave is in limited release beginning Oct. 18)

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