Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, nominated for a foreign-language Academy Award (it lost, to A Separation), is set in the city of Lvov, then part of Poland and now the Ukraine, in the midst of World War II. It's a harrowing Holocaust tale, but one that speaks to humankind's capacity to endure, to fight on in the face of terrible cruelty.

Adapted from Robert Marshall's book In the Sewers of Lvov, Holland's technically impressive film offers a grueling account of the true story of a group of Jews who spent 14 months living in a rat-infested underground sewer, dark, damp, and redolent of human excrement. These were not heroes, but ordinary citizens - flawed, afraid, ungenerous - who, forced from the ghettos as the Nazis lined up Jews for the work camps, and the death camps, fled to the sewers instead.

In Darkness is also, pivotally, the story of a city sewer worker, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz). A married man, a Gentile, whose moral core seems fairly coreless at first, Socha takes money to harbor the Jews - guiding them to hideouts, bringing food and supplies. It was a mercernary act, not a missionary one, but over the course of the year and two months that he served as their secret guardian, Socha undergoes his own transformation. Like many of his Polish brethren, he felt antipathy toward the folks with the stars sewn on their clothes, living in the ghetto. But as he comes to know them, playing with the children and befriending Mundek (Benno Fürmann), a brawny thug who insists on returning aboveground to look for a missing girl, Socha puts himself at risk, sacrificing his own safety and standing in the community to help the frightened fugitives.

Holland, shooting in confined spaces with little light, elicits taut performances from a strong cast. The filmmaker, whose career took off with a very different sort of Holocaust film, 1990's Oscar-nominated Europa Europa, understands that most of these stories arrive at a point of unspeakable, incomprehensible horror. These moments force us to ask questions about ourselves, our existence, about the nature of man and the nature of God - or if there is a God at all.

In Darkness asks these questions. The answers are troubling, inspiring, frightening, true.EndText

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.