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‘Lorenzo’s Oil’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 15, 1993

Knowing the real Lorenzo Odone -- the boy on whom "Lorenzo's Oil" is based -- makes reviewing the movie acutely subjective. The last time I saw Lorenzo, he was a happy, precocious child of 3 or 4. My grandmother babysat him daily for a period of time. My whole family came to know and love him. He knew the feelings we had for him and loved us too.

My memories of him are fragmentary. He called flowers "flurris." It was a far superior word. I've used the same word myself ever since -- privately, of course. I recall walking with him down Massachusetts Avenue one summer afternoon, watching him sprint down the road, his steps swift and pattery, his light hair flouncing in July brilliance. He was living the incipient sensations of childhood. He was bound for the normal, satisfying life we all hope for.

But his father's job at the World Bank took him abroad. The last I saw of Lorenzo, he was en route to the Comoro Islands, off the coast of East Africa, with his charismatic, engaging mother Michaela and his endearingly ursine Italian father Augusto. We lost touch. An emotional loss elapsed into pleasant memory.

No one could have foreseen the malevolent calamity Lorenzo Michael Murphy Odone was really bound for. It was a force of arbitrary cruelty beyond imagination, which shook any notion of a benevolent deity I may once have harbored. I found out through newspaper articles and this movie what happened.

"Lorenzo's Oil," which stars Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte as the Odone parents, is not superbly made. But it's adequate enough to convey the story. No filmmaker (in this case, director George Miller) could stand in the way of this drama, though certainly others could have made it better.

A little boy called Lorenzo is having an idyllic life in the Comoro Islands in 1983. He plays with a local, mystical boy called Omouri. Things start to happen to him, strange physical things. He collapses regularly. He has rages. His hearing starts to go. By 1984, Sarandon and Nolte are told the news: their son has adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a mysterious disease that doctors had identified only 10 years before.

Research on this disease is all but nonexistent. What is known is formidably daunting. Before his life expectancy of an estimated two years, Lorenzo can expect every internal horror possible -- blindness, deafness, muteness, brain damage, even the inability to swallow. Sarandon, a linguist, and Nolte, an economist, realize they must become veritable doctors, nurses and saviors. There is no time to lose.

This is about the heroic battle waged by the parents -- not only against the disease but also against those whose role it is to help, doctors (including Peter Ustinov) and a foundation for research and treatment of the disease. While Sarandon spends 24 hours a day with her bedridden child, firing nurses who don't measure up to her imposing standards, battling family members and screaming at doctors, researchers and anyone in the way of the immediate salvation of her son, Nolte frantically consults every medical book in existence.

The word is still out on Lorenzo's fate. But what they discovered to curb ALD's alarming advance can safely be called a miracle. Suffice it to say, the real Augusto Odone was awarded an honorary medical degree for his research; Lorenzo remains alive. Now 14, he's still fighting for his life. The weight of this story will knock you down, if you choose to experience it. For every little step of success, there are miles of anguish and pain to vicariously trudge. Don't go to it for a Hollywood happy ending. Go to it to learn what it can take to be alive.

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