Documentary Review: Vulcanologists Live and Die for their passion in “Fire of Love”

The trailers to the documentary “Fire of Love” play up the weirdness, the “obsession” of the husband and wife French vulcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, and suggest that they were dilletantes who died doing something they loved but perhaps didn’t fear as much as they should have.

It’s a “Grizzly Man” styled come-on for a movie that doesn’t need that sort of hype, and a couple who don’t deserve to be taken that lightly — at least in the advertising. All that does is remind us that Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”) already made a movie (“Into the Inferno”) about these two, also using their footage and narrating it in that distinct, nihilistic Herzog style.

Sara Dosa’s new film about the Kraffts, who died in 1991 doing what they loved and dedicated their lives to — studying volcanoes, up close and with cameras — doesn’t take that tack. She and editors Erin Casper and Jocelyn Chaput dive into the Krafft’s decades of volcano footage, with the “co-stars” of this movie listed as “Mana Loa, Nyiragongo, St. Helens, Una Una” and others. We hear the Kraffts in samples of their many TV interviews over the years.

And Dosa hired comic actress Miranda July to deliver a deadpan, almost forlorn voice-over narration of the Kraffts, the mystery of their romance.

“In this fire, two lovers found a home,” July intones. “As in love, there are mysteries” about them, how they met and what connected these near-neighbors from Alsace from the 1960s into the 1990s.

Perhaps the answer to those “mysteries” is “You fall for what you know, and for what you don’t.”

Their (European) TV-friendly career that allowed the Kraffts to stay funded and continue their work while others might be left stranded by a lack of grant financing.

The Kraffts came along in the middle of the “plate tectonics revolution,” when understanding of the Earth’s crust, fault lines and the volcanoes and earthquakes along those boundaries was changing overnight. They pitched in, the chemist Katia and the geologist Maurice each doing the science as well as taking the film footage that both made them famous and is probably their lasting contribution to the field.

This footage, rough and tumble — amateurish at times, playful at others — can be breathtaking. And in holding takes of pyroclastic floes, eruptions and steam and smoke venting out of volcanoes for long stretches, “Fire of Love” lets us see why they became transfixed by this deathly-dangerous beauty, mesmerized by the awesome, timeless power they had the privilege of witnessing.

We get a feel for the “ecstasy and loneliness” that drew the Kraffts to each other and to this dangerous work, studying “the archives of the Earth.” And we see the odd moment of recklessness that suggests that yes, maybe they took one, two or three risks too many, some probably just for the cameras.

Animal kingdom fanatic Steve Irwin could have learned from their example.

As beautiful and intimate as “Fire of Love” often is, the sometimes grating, flat and precious narration makes one long for this material to have been folded into Herzog’s superior “Into the Inferno.” Romantic “obsession” is kind of his thing, and there’s not enough new here to warrant expanding on it.

Rating: PG

Cast: Katia Krafft, Maurice Krafft, narrated by Miranda July.

Credits: Directed by Sara Dosa, scripted by Shane Boris, Erin Casper and Jocelyn Chaput. A Neon/National Geographic release.

Running time: 1:33

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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