Lorenzo’s Oil is a film that quite frankly is hard to forget. It tells the true story of how an Italian-American couple struggled to keep their once healthy seven-year-old son, Lorenzo, alive after he was diagnosed with a rare debilitating disease known as ALD (Adrenoleukodystrophy). Over the course of Lorenzo’s declining health, both parents develop a method of treatment using a mixture of olive and rapeseed oil and begin to see a modest improvement in Lorenzo’s condition. The real Lorenzo Odone would defy the many grim prognoses his doctors had given him and would go on to live until he was 30, surviving some 20 years longer than medical experts had predicted.
For such a harrowing tale it’s easy to give in to the emotion within the scenes considered as the more traumatic moments of the Odone’s lives. Director George Miller does a very good job in balancing the desperate, torturous battle that parents Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte (with a rather poor Italian accent) face whilst also using a visual flair not usually seen for a film with this subject matter. There are several shots where the camera swoops down from the shoulders of an adult into the eyes of a poor child suffering from ALD, fading to black. The use of Dutch tilts to visualise Lorenzo’s perspective once he becomes immobile is also very prominent. My favourite of these camera movements is in the film’s final scene where, after a long struggle to get the medical community to hear the Odone’s case, the emotional journey the family has been on is about to close. Although Lorenzo is not cured, we see relief for the first time in both parents’ expressions as their work is finally accepted as a positive treatment in the cause of fighting ALD.
Lorenzo’s mother, Michaela (Sarandon) is talking to her son, who is now paralysed on a flat, raised bed, about the progress his father has made in bringing a group of scientists together to find a potential cure for a strand in ALD that causes dogs to shake. His hopes are that if they can cure the puppies of their shaking condition then that work can be used a base for human trials later on. We see Augusto (Nolte) at the end of a long dinner table, shot entirely against black, discussing their work with scientists whilst Sarandon’s narration blocks out any other noise from the scene. Lorenzo’s breathing can then be heard slowly building up as the camera rises above Nolte’s head and fades from the black background behind him to the ceiling of an immaculate, grandiose cathedral. The gigantic columns supporting the roof are swept past the lens as the camera continues to pull back, further and further, revealing the intricate details of the frescoes above. All the while Sarandon’s voice is steadily replaced with Lorenzo’s, who we haven’t heard speak since the beginning scenes of the film. I’m particularly fond of this technique as Miller uses the simplicity of switching between two characters voices to imbue a sense of hope that Lorenzo’s condition will one day be cured.
The dialogue works wonderfully with this method: Sarandon softly speaks “To tell your brain (To tell my brain…), to tell your toes (To tell my toes…), your fingers (My fingers…), your anything (My anything…), to do what you want them to do (To do what I want them to do…). At which point her voice is completely replaced and we hear Lorenzo speak clearly “And then, one day, I’ll hear my voice and all these words I’m thinking…will get outside my head.” The camera begins to push forwards into the ceiling to show a message reading how the Odone’s have greatly affected the search for a cure for ALD. I won’t detail the later displays of home footage shot by real people who have been helped thanks to Lorenzo’s oil during the credits as, for me, the film’s narrative is at an end by this point. But, the simplicity of replacing one voice with another over this gliding shot of a church is incredibly effective in communicating the religious themes that lie underneath Lorenzo’s Oil’s plot. In many ways he is a young Christ-like figure, whose suffering has allowed what is described as “an army of boys” to live happy lives ALD-free. At the time of release audiences did not know what would become of Lorenzo, but the work his parents achieved, with no prior medical knowledge or training, has certainly changed the lives of countless people with the same condition. Miller uses camera and sound beautifully in crafting a spiritual moment for us, right at the end of an incredibly emotional journey, to show all is not lost for the Odone’s, or us as the viewer.