De Humani Corporis Fabrica movie review (2023)

“De Humani Corporis Fabrica”—the Latin title means “On the Fabric of the Human Body”—is not as groundbreaking a picture. But it is a compelling and possibly important one. Not so much because of what it shows, although what it shows can rightly be described as shocking and galvanic. (By the same token, it occurred to me that if you’re a meat eater, you ought to be able to handle some of the ostensibly extreme imagery.) It’s because of the proximity in which it places you to the doctors and technicians cutting up the patients. We don’t see them all that often, but we hear them. The movie opens with a dialogue of unseen women talking about the burnout they experience working in an ICU. One speaks of a young patient with an intestinal ailment that will kill him and the jarring fact that he’s been in the ICU for over 100 days. One thing that ameliorates the misery for these workers is that ICU patients are generally short-term—10 days max. It prevents them from becoming too attached to their cases. Otherwise, it’s heartache beyond what they already endure. The testimony is wrenching.

Other stuff isn’t so inspiring. The banter during a catheterization, for instance. Or the dialogue during the prostate surgery, including the repeated “that’s a huge prostate” and the one thing you definitely don’t want to hear during surgery, “I’m a little lost here.” These caretakers are all too human. The movie somehow turns that into a reason to admire them all the more.

Outside the surgery spaces, there’s awful sorrow: old patients with dementia or other forms of mental disorder wandering dimly-lit corridors, whispering “shut up” to companions who aren’t even talking, obsessively pushing elevator buttons.

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are makers of ostensibly immersive documentaries that offer viewers little conventional guidance. There’s no narration, no chyrons telling where you are, and no talking-head interviews that provide context. You just get tossed in the pool, or the sea, as in their acclaimed 2012 “Leviathan,” an exploration of commercial fishing. I found one of their later films, the 2017 “Caniba,” about a murderer/cannibal, a hard miss and an arrogant one.

Some passages in this movie have a ring of “we’re gonna MAKE you look at this” arrogance, but I could just be projecting. As you get older, you spend a lot more time in hospitals, looking after sick and/or dying loved ones or undergoing medical procedures of your own. Ask me about my percutaneous nephrolithotomy some time! More than once while watching this picture, I thought, “I don’t need to see this—I’ve lived through it.” But I’ll be 64 this year. The college kids at my screening, attending as part of their documentary class, thought it was awesome. And it is educational. Next time you talk to someone who tells you they have a steel rod straightening out their spine, you’ll know how it got there and be glad you didn’t have to go through the process.

Now playing in select theaters.