Suspended in orange and crimson, the mysterious, shimmering black circle that greets us in the first shot of Last Men in Aleppo coul d be blood circling a drain, a dying star, a storm front seen from space. Instead, it's something more mundane: the eye of a goldfish. But the otherworldly tone with which Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen start their documentary puts us in an unusual frame of mind. For even though Last Men in Aleppo is mostly a ground-level, you-are-there experience, the eyes of history, and maybe even of something greater, are never far.
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Shot over a year among the White Helmets — the Syrian first responders whose rescue efforts, in the wake of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin's bombs, have turned them into an international cause célèbre — the film mostly follows two people living in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city and one of the spots most ravaged by the country's ongoing civil war. The reflective and garrulous Khaled is a former painter who came to renown (and became a hero to his own children) when he pulled a living baby from the rubble of a bombed building in June 2014.
The intense, stern-faced Mahmoud, meanwhile, spends his days driving an ambulance from bomb site to bomb site, rummaging through the carnage and attempting to rescue the living and recover the dead. Repeatedly, we see him pull out children — some living, many not. We also see him retrieve body parts, including, at one point, a severed hand. He can't feel good about anybody he rescues, because the dead are never far: Very often, they're members of the same family. (As for Mahmoud's own family, it turns out that he and his brother told their parents they had nice safe jobs in Turkey before joining what is generally regarded as the most dangerous occupation on Earth.)
You might expect that a movie in which men speed through a war-torn city and struggle to save lives amid bombed-out blocks and smoking ruins, all while keeping an eye out for more planes, would be breathless, fast-paced, suspenseful. But the prevailing mood here is exhaustion. Khaled and Mahmoud have been doing this for so long that their souls have been crushed. They do the work and they do it as well as they can, and then they're off to the next crisis. Mahmoud's visit to some kids he helped rescue earlier in the film — a tender meeting punctuated by one boy's constant questions and nervous refusal to let go of the man who saved his life — can't put a smile on his face. He later reveals to a fellow White Helmet that he hadn't gone there to check up on the kids who'd lived; he wanted to find out which had died.
And yet there's beauty in this film. Cinematographer Fadi al Halabi and his crew capture the immediacy of events without forsaking the forbidding, horrific and, yes, captivating quality of what they're recording. The vapor trails of jets, the image of barrel bombs drifting earthward at twilight: All of this has a terrible majesty. The devastation has rendered the city surreal — a giant hole in the middle of one blown-out neighborhood looks like something from the surface of a distant planet. Those fish we saw in the opening frames make a comeback when the men decide to build a small pond in front of their building. (One of them jokes that it's so they'll have fish to eat if the city's siege worsens.)
Highlighting such moments of visual poetry may seem at first like a misstep: Who has time for aesthetics when people are literally dying in front of the lens? But it actually adds to the horror. The film has plenty of unflinching truth and emotion and outrage, and it ends with a gut punch. It's the subtly unreal quality of what we're seeing throughout, however, that truly highlights the obscenity of war.