Rating: (4 stars)
A sequel of sorts to the 2017 film “Last Men in Aleppo,” filmmaker Feras Fayyad’s riveting documentary “The Cave” plunges viewers back into the conflict in Syria, this time in a town outside Damascus, where a heroic team of doctors and nurses try to save as many lives as they can amid a punishing five-year siege.
Under near-constant attack from Russian warplanes and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons, the citizens of Ghouta live in a decimated landscape of rubble and half-razed buildings. But beneath that hopeless surface, a sprawling warren of underground corridors and treatment rooms form a surprisingly functioning if woefully under-resourced hospital. There, a pediatrician named Amani Ballor oversees a team of medical practitioners treating a near-constant stream of people suffering unimaginable wounds and even deeper emotional trauma.
That most of these patients are children gives “The Cave” its profound sense of pathos, and also outrage: As if the physical and psychic toll aren’t enough, Dr. Amani (as she is known) also must battle the entrenched sexism of Syrian culture. Through it all, she offers clear-eyed assessments and compassionate care to her young charges. But when a group comes in smelling of chlorine gas, her self-control crumbles. It’s clear then that what we’re witnessing isn’t the grim reality of war, but the sheer inhumanity of war crimes.
Fayyad — who directed a team of cinematographers remotely when he was prevented from entering Ghouta himself — films “The Cave” with a grace and compositional sensitivity all the more impressive for being achieved under the most difficult circumstances. While conveying the cramped, claustrophobic desperation of his subjects, he also makes space for technical beauty, especially in long tracking shots and moments of discretion with his observant but never obtrusive camera.
When the gas attack occurs, “The Cave” goes from being a cinema verité document to a more fast-paced thriller, as Dr. Amani and her friends must make the anguishing decision to stay or evacuate. This extraordinary film allows viewers to bear witness to courage and dedication in their finest forms — and it offers a grim reminder that justice, mercy and healing have been driven underground for centuries. Somehow, they’ve always survived, but “The Cave” leaves hanging a question Dr. Amani asks early in the film: “Is God really watching?” More to the point, is anybody?
PG-13. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains disturbing war-related thematic material and images. In Arabic with subtitles. 95 minutes.