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Issue Date:  November 9, 2007

Life in close-ups

'Lake of Fire' is a documentary debate on abortion; 'Things We Lost in the Fire' is about family replacements


Tony Kaye has finally released Lake of Fire, a 152-minute documentary on abortion intended as an inclusive presentation of diverse opinions on its subject. A grueling film experience, it includes footage of actual abortions, the sifting of post-abortion embryonic body parts, and an autopsy of a nude dead woman with a coat hanger protruding from her corpse.

It’s hardly a candidate for your local multiplex. It might nevertheless be usefully shown to college audiences because it presents the angry debate on the subject in human terms.

Mr. Kaye, a maverick who sued the Director’s Guild of America to have his name removed as director from “American History” (1988), has here served as director, producer and director of photography. He does not impose a point of view on the film but since much of the footage comes from the South in the 1990s when abortion was being attacked by fundamentalist activists, the “pro-life” position ends up looking especially shrill and bloodthirsty.

Calmer judgments are offered by intellectuals Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, Nat Hentoff and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin with his “consistent ethic of life,” but none of them is given the time needed to develop a sustained argument. Even the film’s title, referring to the biblical idea of a hell reserved for sinners, sets its emotional tone as visceral rather than philosophical.

“Lake of Fire” was shot in dramatic black and white. Mr. Kaye gets participants to look directly into the camera, making for an uncomfortable intimacy with the audience, which is left in the middle of the debate. Women tend to be photographed in close-up while men are given some visual breathing room. A less successful stylistic device is its first identification of interviewees in upside-down photography.

“Lake of Fire” includes capsule comments from a wide range of people, from Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry to Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice, but by skipping arbitrarily from one position to the next, it is more successful as a lesson in free speech than an illumination of ethical principles.

-- Paramount Pictures

Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro in "Things We Lost in the Fire"

Things We Lost in the Fire brings together two well-known Hollywood stars and a director from the European art-house circuit. The stunningly beautiful Halle Berry portrays a recently widowed young mother and Benicio Del Toro a recovering heroin addict, but these skilled performers never quite create a tension that rings true. This small-themed film seems simply an actors’ showcase. Susanne Bier, directing her first English-language picture, is careful, even original, but cannot rescue Allan Loeb’s weak screenplay.

After the tragic, violent death of her husband Brian (David Duchovny) in suburban Seattle, Audrey Burke (Ms. Berry) calls his drug-addicted friend Jerry Sunborne (Mr. Del Toro) and invites him to the wake. She had loathed her husband’s relationship with Jerry but now, in a repressed state of mourning, she asks him to stay with her in an unfinished room in the garage.

Jerry is a lawyer, and Mr. Del Toro plays him with the oozy sexiness that has had him hailed by some as the new Valentino. When he asks Audrey what he is doing in her home, she can only say, “I don’t know. It should have been you that died.” When his charm leads to a gradual acceptance by her two young children, it only angers her. They seem to depend on each other for healing but they never quite get together.

The film is basically about family replacements. He becomes substitute husband and father for Audrey and the children, while they become family for him. Unfortunately, the audience is constantly harangued with catchphrases like “facing your fears” and statements like “We are all luminescent,” undermining the naturalness of the action. Its strongest moments show Jerry falling in and out of addiction, offering a chillingly convincing portrayal of heroin life and the physical agony of withdrawal.

Early in her career, the director had been associated with the Danish Dogma 95 movement. With “Things We Lost in the Fire,” she has broken away from that manifesto-ridden school, which insisted that films could only be shot in natural settings, with stringent regulations that eliminated makeup and accepted the tightest of plot lines. Ms. Bier no longer works within its rules but the effect of the Dogma movement can still be seen. The entire film is shot with handheld cameras, allowing the actors to find their way around the set without being confined by a predetermined camera placement.

Ms. Bier offers some amazing close-ups of the eyes of her characters, reinforcing a sense that eyes offer an access to the soul. But with its actors locked into a poor script, it is hard to find a genuine soul in “Things We Lost in the Fire.”

Kevin Doherty teaches film at Manhattanville College, Purchase, N.Y. Joseph Cunneen was the longtime editor of the ecumenical quarterly CrossCurrents.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007

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