Lorenzo’s Oil (1992): George (“Mad Max”) Miller Melodrama, Starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte

Lorenzo’s Oil, which opened on the very last day of December to qualify for consideration for Oscar nominations, goes into wide release this week.

The movie has been sitting on Universal’s shelves for some time, because the studio didn’t know what to do with it, i.e. how to market it to the public. Lorenzo’s Oil is undoubtedly one of the strangest, most ambitious films I have seen in a long time. But is it a good picture I am not sure.

Based on a true story, Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon play Augusto and Michaela Odone, two devoted and courageous parents who suddenly discover that their five-year-old son Lorenzo has developed ALD, a mysterious disease that is considered to be fatal. Soon Lorenzo begins to experience seizures, screaming fits, mental and physical disorders (deafness, paralysis) and finally a rare brain deterioration. Against all odds, the Odones fight the medical establishment, researchers, and even the parents of children who suffer from the disease to find a cure for their son.

Lorenzo’s Oil was directed by Australian filmmaker George Miller, best known in the United States for the energetic action movies (Mad Max, The Road Warrior) that made Mel Gibson an international star. Miller has bravely taken a melodramatic, conventional topic, perfectly suited for “Made-for-TV Disease of the Week Movie, and has directed it in the most unconventional manner possible: as a horror-action movie. Miller uses mega close-ups to show Lorenzo’s suffering face, and he places his camera at strange angles, shifting it from high-angle to low-angle. This tension between the difficult, really depressing subject matter and its odd visual style is responsible for a movie that never quite gets the audience’s sympathy.

Clearly, Miller did anything possible to lift the material to the level of an art film, fearing that the comparison with the usually flat and predictable TV fare would debase the story. One thing you can say for sure about Lorenzo’s Oil is that it doesn’t resemble at all a TV movie.

At the same time, one of the shrewd tricks of standard, commercial TV is that its producers know how to lure the viewers to the screen, how to involve them emotionally. But self-consciously arty, Lorenzo’s Oil tries so hard to dissociate itself from the sentimentality and melodramatics of that form that it pays a price: it distances the viewers from the characters.

It is to Miller’s credit that he succeeds in treating this bizarre medical case as a thriller, even though the results are known–the real Lorenzo is alive and reportedly in a state of progress. Miller, who was trained as a physician and co-wrote the screenplay, should also be commended for achieving what most movies about illnesses lack: factual clarity. The arguments about ALD, between Augusto and Michaela and between the Odones and the medical establishment, are always clear; we get a reasonable dosage of information about the disease and the conservative politics of medical research.

By now, you may have read about Nick Nolte’s “wrong,” accent, which gets in the way of his performance, so I will not dwell on that. But I would like to single out Susan Sarandon for giving a truly fierce and original performance, one that is totally uncompromising.

One of the best actresses around, the modest Sarandon plays an obsessive, single-minded mother, willing to obliterate herself completely for the chance of saving her child. The scene in which she learns that the disease is genetically transmitted by the mother is one of the movie’s most powerful and heartbreaking moments. Sarandon’s complex portrait is multi-faceted: she is a symbol of the sacrificing mother, but she is also depicted as a ruthless woman when it comes to the needs and feelings of those around her (her sister, the doctors, the nurses who help her).

Lorenzo’s Oil could have made more of the mother’s fanaticism and to what extent it justifies her cause. In the final account, Lorenzo’s life is prolonged, but is it enough What kind of life does he have The entire movie is based on a commonsensical–yet not universally accepted–premise of the sacredness of life, that no matter under what conditions, human life is always preferable over death. But is it really the case

Ironically, the danger of a life-affirming and uplifting movie like Lorenzo’s Oil is that because of its factual origins, its particular message will be generalized and thus taken seriously as a remedy for other mysterious illnesses for which there is no cure (or understanding) yet. Lorenzo’s Oil attributes the Odones’ triumph to their selfless commitment and passionate conviction. Granted, these are all admirable qualities–but are they sufficient conditions for the solution of all medical problems

Raising these questions one month after I saw the picture is a testament to its lasting power. But I also have to admit that it was easier to write about and appreciate Lorenzo’s Oil from a distance than to endure the movie while it was going on.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Susan Sarandon

Original Screenplay: George Miller and Nick Enright

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Emma Thompson for Howards End.

The Original Writing Oscar went to Neil Jordan for The Crying Game, which he also directed.