Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 3rd, 2022
Fire of Love (Sara Dosa, 2022) 4 out of 4 stars.
By the time married French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft died on June 3, 1991, on the slopes of Mount Unzen, in Japan, they had long since established themselves as premier experts in their field. As we learn in Fire of Love, director Sara Dosa’s excellent archival documentary about the duo, they pioneered much of the research we now take for granted. Not only that, but they were talented filmmakers, as well, leaving behind a treasure trove of film footage, as well as completed moves, featuring striking close-up shots of lava flows and ash clouds.
Sadly, it would be one of the latter—from a type of volcano they labeled a “gray” one, which they considered the deadliest—that would kill them. Dosa (The Seer and the Unseen) allows her late subjects to do all the talking, bringing us directly into the fascinating, dangerous world that quite literally consumed the couple. It’s a gripping tale of obsession and, yes, love. Oh, and multihyphenate artist Miranda July narrates, though as good a job as she does, that is the least remarkable element of the film.
Dosa starts at the end and then cycles back to the beginning, showing how the Kraffts got started, first individually and then as a pair, all along educating the viewer about the science of volcanoes. Disillusioned with the politics of the late 1960s, when regimes across the world were taking a turn to the right, our protagonists turned their attention to the natural world just as humanity was gaining a greater understanding of plate tectonics. Over the ensuing decades, we follow them across the globe, from Iceland to Zaire to the United States to Colombia and beyond, adding to their knowledge as they go.
As fully engaging as Katia and Maurice are (and they are), they are often eclipsed by the raw beauty of their subjects, photographed by them in images of striking artistry, made all the more fantastic by the camera’s proximity to danger. Unfortunately, it was that closeness that would eventually kill them, though I, for one, am shocked that they didn’t die earlier, so risky do their activities seem. But according to them, the bright red rivers of lava are eminently predictable, allowing one to anticipate movements and avoid the worst.
Mount Saint Helens, the eruption of which they did not directly observe—only showing up after the fact—is the kind of volcano that is much more dangerous, its poisonous vapors and dust moving at such high speeds, and at such high temperatures, that there is virtually no way to avoid death. And though they were able to publicize this kind of information through their media output, they somehow still got caught in Mount Unzen’s equivalent kind of explosion. We don’t see what happened, but by that point in the film, we don’t need to. Thanks to the Kraffts’ movies, we know without needing to see.
Though a tragic story, Fire of Love is also a majestic one, as much about the romance between lovers and partners as about the Earth’s elemental forces. Katia and Maurice may have died over 30 years ago, but here they reign eternal. May the flame of their passion, both for each other and for their work, burn on in searing cinematic glory.