In 1984, Augusto and Michaela Odone saw their 5-year-old son, Lorenzo, fall victim to adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare and devastating disease with no known cure. Lorenzo quickly lost the ability to speak, to move, to perceive his surroundings; the Odones were told he had a maximum of two years to live. Lorenzo, however, is now 14. He owes his survival to a feat so remarkable it borders on the miraculous. Driven — indeed, possessed — by a desire to save their son’s life, the Odones, neither of whom had any scientific training, succeeded in inventing a treatment for ALD.
Lorenzo’s Oil, a one-of-a-kind medical thriller starring Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, is the story of how they did it. More than that, it’s the story of why: The movie shows us two valiant, desperate people who effectively turned their love for their son into a religion — who accomplished the impossible by convincing themselves they had no other choice. In the eyes of the Odones, to accept the inevitability of Lorenzo’s death would have been, in some terrible way, to contribute to it; they believed they owed him a miracle. Lorenzo’s Oil could be the most intricate dramatic demonstration ever offered of why necessity is the mother of invention.
This isn’t the sort of movie we’d expect from George Miller, the Australian director best known for the slashingly nihilistic Mad Max series. Yet the stretch isn’t as wild as it seems. Part of the power of Mad Max and The Road Warrior is that they were profoundly human visions of an inhuman world. Miller began his career as a physician, and Lorenzo’s Oil, for all its triumph-of-the-spirit inspirationalism, is one of the rare medical dramas to evoke the full measure of anxiety and horror that accompanies the onslaught of disease. As Lorenzo succumbs to the first, deranging symptoms of ALD, Miller stages the illness as a literal falling away from the world. Scored to Samuel Barber’s haunting Adagio for Strings, these scenes have a vertiginous poetry and dread.
The Odones consult a medical professor (Peter Ustinov) who explains that the health establishment is baffled by ALD. But they walk away with one clue: The symptoms are caused, in part, by long-chain saturated fats that clog the bloodstream. If the production of these molecules can be stopped, so, perhaps, can the disease. Augusto Odone (Nolte), a World Bank economist, knows he doesn’t understand medicine, but the film proceeds from his conviction — naive yet intuitively scientific — that complicated aspects of nature must run according to an intrinsic plan. Painstakingly, over a period of more than a year, Augusto and Michaela (Sarandon), his Irish-American linguist wife, begin to pound away at the riddle of the fat molecules. As they do, Lorenzo’s Oil thrillingly demystifies the intricacies of scientific inquiry.
Nolte plays this intellectually restless go-getter with a thick, melodious Italian accent, and at first the effect is hammy and self-conscious. Yet I think Nolte’s performance serves the film in a unique way. We’re so used to seeing heroic sagas done as implicit celebrations of American derring-do that Lorenzo’s Oil seems fresher for its portrait of an eccentric Italian leading the way with his mind. Before long, both Augusto and Michaela are hitting medical textbooks, turning themselves into quick-study biochemists. At the same time, Michaela attaches herself to Lorenzo’s suffering. Sarandon holds nothing back — her Michaela carries the maternal bond to a furious, nearly pathological extreme.
Lorenzo’s Oil is at once harrowing and riveting. In the age of AIDS, it has telling observations to make about how the institutionalized complacency of the medical establishment actually works. As remarkable a job as Miller and the actors have done, though, the film begins to wear you down. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it’s far too long, and (more crucially) it has a flat, repetitive structure. The Odones, in their search for a cure, reach one breakthrough and then another, almost identical one, at which point the dramatic tension leaks away. What we needed to see more of is how Lorenzo’s catastrophic ordeal affected the Odones’ relationship. Despite Sarandon’s intensity, they’re both so saintly that the movie often verges on being a fantasy of the ultimate antidysfunctional parents. Still, whatever its flaws, there has never been a medical drama quite like Lorenzo’s Oil. With indelible fervor, it captures the will — the need — to heal. B+