' ' Cinema Romantico: Fire of Love

Friday, January 13, 2023

Fire of Love

“Fire of Love” is much less a documentary than a poem, a love poem, that is, about married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. Given their occupation, you can probably guess that this love poem ends as many love poems do, in tragedy. Indeed, Katia and Maurice died on June 3, 1991 during the eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen. In that way, “Fire of Love” becomes a companion piece to Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man” (Herzog has made two documentaries about the Kraffts, neither of which I have seen) about moonbeam-voiced Timothy Treadwell who lived among brown bears for 13 seasons in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and was eventually killed by one along with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard. He was pegged as a starry-eyed dreamer who never truly grasped the immediate danger of his situation, a not inaccurate interpretation, though “Fire of Love” at least partly goes to show that, hey, experts can be starry-eyed dreamers too. True, “Fire of Love” demonstrates how the Kraffts utilized data gathered in the hard-to-reach field to lobby for warning systems and quicker evacuations in the face of looming volcanic eruptions, but it also includes footage of Maurice describing, not flippantly, his longstanding dream of paddling a canoe down a river of lava. This never comes to pass, I suspect it goes without staying, but I hope that somewhere Roland Emmerich is taking notes for a future cinematic spectacle.

If we never see that image, we see plenty more that are no less mind-blowing in their right, motion picture paintings of oozing molten lava and liquid rock shooting into the air like so many orange and black splotches of paint strewn across a canvas. More than anything, “Fire of Love” is about this, its photography, which is to say the footage filmed by the Kraffts themselves. It’s like those nature documentaries, the ones narrated by David Attenborough, where some small camera has been hidden and planted on some remote mountain so we can see animals up close and personal that we would otherwise never see with such nearness. The crucial difference, of course, is that the Kraffts are very much right there, images of the couple in their fire proximity suits walking close to spewing lava rendering them as something akin to astronauts on the surface of the sun. And these images also function as a pointed reminder that “Fire of Love” is not a nature documentary attempting to hide or remove any sense of human presence. We hear the Kraffts themselves suggest that once you have gone where only they have gone, it becomes difficult, nigh impossible, to reenter and exist within the mundane real world. That’s similar to “Free Solo,” the Oscar-winning documentary putting the perilous exploits of rock climber Alex Honnold squarely under the microscope. But while “Fire of Love” makes a few passing attempts at asking similar questions of the Kraffts tendency to put themselves in harm’s, the magnetic pull of the images proffered mostly just rhetorically asks, “How could they not?”

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