Theo Who Lived is a discreet victory for humanism, an 86-minute thaw of society’s calcifying heart. Director David Schisgall’s film recounts the story of Theo Padnos, an American journalist who was kidnapped by, and ultimately saved from Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. Now he returns to the site of his trauma, recounting and even reenacting his harrowing experience.

Schisgall is wholly lucid in his approach. He lets Padnos tell a pure story. If he had filmed his subject in a single hours-long shot, never moving from a seat, merely narrating, the final product would still have been nothing short of riveting. In some ways, Schisgall does the emotional equivalent. Much of the film is given up to Padnos, who speaks with captivating energy –demonstrating how he slept cramped in a miniscule cell in Deir ez-Zor, how his captors strung a noose around his neck, how he begged for a beating to end.

Padnos’ mother and cousin provide supplemental interviews. They describe the experience of missing Theo, of exhausting all avenues to rescue him. Padnos’ drama runs parallel to that of James Foley, the journalist who was captured and beheaded on video by ISIS. The two families worked simultaneously to bring their loved ones home. The sea change that affected the American public after the Foley footage essentially saved Padnos as the government set wheels in motion, his rescue coming days later.

Theo carries himself with a verve that must come from knowing what it is to be truly desperate. Yet as he tells it, he never lost sight of his tormentors’ humanity. “I don’t blame them exclusively because they themselves have been the victims of persecution and suffering…So it’s a cycle of hatred,” he explains to the camera through the tiny window of a hot box. “I refuse to capitulate to that or to perpetuate it in any way.” Indeed, he recalls how he maintained a sense of humor in the darkness, for instance sticking the leaves from an orange into his cell wall and inviting the guards to come and sit in his “garden.” At a certain point, he began to write a story. It was about home in Vermont and it kept him going, day in and day out. But it also contained elements relatable to his captors. He would read to them, they would become engrossed and connected.

Padnos describes the members of the Nusra Front as men, not enemies. Here, the jihad is not a total eclipse of the soul. Padnos allows them to be both hideous and good. He does the same for Westerners, acknowledging web upon web of circumstance and choice, perceiving in grace that real monsters are a rare breed. This understanding is an agony for the viewer, but also a release from fear.

Theo Who Lived ends in wisdom and action. Padnos is shot performing relief work on the shores of Lesbos, Greece, where he says that welcoming and aiding the arriving Syrian refugees, “makes him happy.” Finally, he is shown delivering a talk to journalism students. He invokes, in a manner totally convincing, the power of love. Theo Who Lived travels treacherous ground with dignity and clear eyes, and reaches an elusive guiding principle: Love – radiant in Theo, thinly scattered elsewhere.

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