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Review: Doctor saves lives in region under siege in documentary ‘The Heart of Nuba’

Dr. Tom Catena (left) and his patients in a scene from “The Heart of Nuba.” Credit: Kenneth Carlson
Dr. Tom Catena, left, in the documentary “The Heart of Nuba.”
(Kenneth Carlson / Abramorama)

The title of the gripping, inspiring documentary “The Heart of Nuba” describes Catholic missionary Tom Catena, an American doctor running the Mother of Mercy Hospital in southern Sudan’s remote Nuba Mountains. Since 2011, the oil-rich, rebel-held region has been targeted for aerial bombings by the nation’s dictator, indicted war criminal Omar Bashir, resulting in death, destruction, displacement and a shocking lack of humanitarian aid for the besieged Nuba peoples.

Suffice to say Catena, the only permanent physician in a vast area of an estimated 1 million citizens, has his hands full.

Still, this upstate New York transplant, 53, is as committed and selfless as they come: He lives in spare digs 100 yards from the under-equipped hospital, handles a nonstop array of critical health and surgical issues (some graphically depicted), is on call 24/7 and, until more recently, forfeited marriage and children to follow his longtime path of medical service.

Through it all, the whippet-thin, formerly 245-pound college football star maintains an upbeat, can-do attitude, charming patients and villagers alike with boundless devotion, warmth and grace. Catena’s stirring trip back to the U.S. to visit his family is filled with an equal show of love and support.

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Producer-director Kenneth A. Carlson (a teammate of Catena’s at Brown) absorbingly, unfussily captures Catena’s daily challenges and feats while also painting a vivid, often heartbreaking portrait of a forgotten people trapped in an underreported sociopolitical nightmare.

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‘The Heart of Nuba’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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