Every year, there are at least one or two extraordinary don't-miss-it documentaries. Fire of Love certainly qualifies as an entry for 2022. The subjects are Maurice and Katia Krafft, married volcanologists who decided not to have children because they wanted to completely devote their lives to their work. They contributed as much, if not more, to our understanding of volcanoes as anyone, due in part to their willingness to risk their lives by getting as close as possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Kraffts died on the job. Part of what the film makes clear, though, is that they wouldn't have it any other way.
Director Sara Dosa combines vintage interviews with Maurice and Katia, footage they shot, and somber narration from actress/filmmaker Miranda July to tell the story of their extraordinary marriage and joint career. Little is known for certain about how they met, but a passion for studying volcanoes drew them together and made them inseparable. Both shared a desire to push the boundaries of what was known. That meant getting fully on the same wavelength when venturing into the craters and standing mere feet away from massive lava flows. If they weren't in sync, the results could be catastrophic. That isn't to say there weren't disagreements. As we can see, Katia is dismayed when Maurice decides to hop in a rubber raft so he can traverse a volcanic lake filled with acid.
Fire of Love has an intriguing approach. Love and work were deeply intertwined, so showing an excess of the film they shot serves to add depth to the portrait of marriage. Maurice and Katia are constantly together in these hazardous situations, often in special silver suits to protect them from the heat. If one of them dies, the other will too. It's that simple. We can tell this is by design. Neither wants to live without the other. In her voiceover, July says that, for the Kraffts, the unknown was not something to fear, it was something to run toward. That they did this as life partners suggests the immense trust that existed within the marriage. Who else would have tolerated being married to either of them, given that proclivity?
The volcanic images in the movie are breathtaking. Massive rivers of lava flowing like white water rapids. Lava “bombs” flying through the pitch-black night sky. Plumes of ash spewing hundreds of feet into the air. You get to see a lot of up-close footage of volcanoes in Fire of Love, all of it impossible to take your eyes off. Watching it, you gradually begin to understand why the Kraffts risked their safety. As deadly as they can be, the volcanoes undeniably have a dark beauty to them. As lava flows and cools, new “land” is developed, so you literally get to see creation at work. And the bright red cascading lava is hypnotic. There may not be a more visually magnificent film this year.
The final section packs an added punch. After government officials in Colombia ignore warnings of pending mudslides from volcanic activity, leading to 22,000 deaths, the Kraffts dedicated themselves to pushing for an early warning system, along with public education about how to evacuate in an emergency. This, ironically, is what led them to Mount Unzen in Japan, where their work came to an abrupt, tragic end. The couple wanted to use their knowledge to save lives, and gave their own to do it.
Fire of Love is not a dry documentary. July's narration is elegantly scripted and delivered with sincerity. Similarly, the way Dosa assembles all the footage – mixing it with colorful animated graphs that help convey the science at hand - gives the movie real personality. Moments of humor exist amid the wonder of the volcanic images. From it emerges a touching examination of a marriage. Maurice and Katia were uncommon people, yet their uncommon ambitions lined up perfectly, and their love of volcanoes was matched only by their love for each other.
out of four
Fire of Love is rated PG for thematic material including some unsettling images, and brief smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.