Australian filmmaker George Miller’s most hauntingly apocalyptic film has nothing to do with his hugely successful Mad Max franchise. The same can be said for his most touching and compassionate film, which is as far removed from his kid-friendly Babe and Happy Feet entries as can possibly be. As one of the most slippery and visceral directors to ever work in Hollywood, it makes a strange kind of sense that, sandwiched in between high-octane action films and talking-animal movies, Miller’s most gripping, monumental, and passionate film would be a medical melodrama about an unrelenting genetic disease and some miraculous olive oil. Lorenzo’s Oil, out this week on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, is an unmissable masterwork of utmost seriousness from one of the most versatile directors of our time.
After spending a significant chunk of his childhood growing up on the Comoro Islands off the southeast coast of Africa, young Lorenzo Odone (Zach O’Malley Greenburg) returns to the United States when his World Bank official father Augusto (Nick Nolte) is transferred home to Washington, D.C. Months pass and all is well for Lorenzo in the States: Then, seemingly out of the blue, his teacher informs his mother Michaela (Susan Sarandon) that he committed an unprovoked attack against a fellow classmate. Given that the boy is normally a perfectly well-behaved student, the news of this isolated incident comes as a shock to Lorenzo’s parents. Then it happens again... and again... and again. That’s when they know something is not right with their son. However, to their surprise, Lorenzo’s various medical tests come back clean even as his mystery condition worsens. While specialists scramble to find the root cause, the boy loses his balance, hearing, vision, and speech.
In a barren, harshly lit doctor’s office, Michaela and Augusto finally find out what’s wrong with their son: He’s suffering from adrenoleukodystrophy, or ADL, a degenerative neurological disease that usually leads to death within two years of diagnosis. There is no hope to be indulged, only facts. Lorenzo has been dealt a death sentence, it came from his mother’s genotype, and there is nothing any medical professional can do but minimize his discomfort. Naturally, as any parent would likely react, Michaela and Augusto refuse to sit idly by while their child dwindles away into a comatose state. Surrounded by skeptics and naysayers who can’t (or won’t) help their search for a miracle fix, Michaela and Augusto hit the books. With no faith left in the healthcare system, they give their all to finding a cure for their son.
On the surface, Lorenzo’s Oil is the obvious outlier in George Miller’s filmography. It includes nothing overtly fantastical or connected to some sort of marketable intellectual property, just uncompromising dramatic pragmatism in the face of a very real (and very tragic) medical anomaly. Moviegoers seem to have dismissed it as some sort of by-the-numbers Oscars bait at the time — the film grossed just $7 million at the box office against its $30 million budget. On closer inspection, however, the film fits squarely within the director’s oeuvre: Miller, who is a physician himself, combines his experience in medicine with his years behind the camera to paint an unsparing portrait of the unsympathetic methodology of doctors and the steadfast love of parents. The film often plays more like a dystopian body-horror film than a straightforward melodrama.
The operatic Biblical imagery that runs through Lorenzo’s Oil emphasizes the nightmare of the Odones' situation. Cinematographer John Seale – whose unforgettable work on Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is rightly seared into the minds of countless filmgoers – often composes his shots like Renaissance paintings, equating Lorenzo’s decline in health to a literal hell on earth. The camera peers down from the rafters of a church as Michaela gazes up heavenward during a crisis of faith. The horrid symptoms of ADL flicker across Augustus’s face as he scans medical texts, his worst fears for his son’s life flying off the page and consuming his thoughts. MRIs and scans are shown with canted camera angles, Lorenzo’s results looking as unstable as life itself for the Odones. It’s nothing short of harrowing.
Still, despite the tangible dread that pulses through Lorenzo’s Oil and the unbeatable odds the Odones face, there’s a glint of hope at the end of the tunnel. This the one thing keeping both the family and the viewers from becoming completely despondent as ALD wreaks havoc on Lorenzo’s brain and body. It’s an assault on the heartstrings to watch the boy and his family suffer through this degenerative disease, but Michaela and Augustus never once consider giving up their pursuit (regardless of what everyone else in their lives advises). It’s a testament to the talent of Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon that their performances feel so grounded and nuanced, while Miller’s excellent direction maintains a tone that is both dreadful and sanguine.
The key to appreciating Lorenzo’s Oil is offered in the film' opening. An on-screen quote from a Swahili war song advises: “Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of God. So let us celebrate the struggle.” It’s the kind of platitude that encourages us to rise above trauma, something that is usually only feasible when we've achieved some distance from hardship. Similarly, there’s some distance between Lorenzo’s Oil’s theatrical release and the present moment. While it might have been snubbed at the box office and at the Oscars in its time – it was nominated for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay, but did not win – Kino Lorber’s pristine restoration of Miller’s arguably most undervalued film allows it to be seen by a new generation of cinephiles. In the wake of Mad Max: Fury Road, those viewers might be able to appreciate the sheer potency of Miller's 1992 feature in a way that audiences at the time could not. Thanks to this Blu-ray upgrade, viewers both new and old can properly celebrate the struggle of Lorenzo’s Oil.
Further Viewing: Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Babe (1995), Babe: Pig in the City (1998), Happy Feet (2006), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Lorenzo's Oil is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.