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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

Lorenzo's Oil

Director: George Miller
Producer: George Miller
Screenwriters: George Miller, Nick Enright
Cast: Susan Sarandon , Nick Nolte , Peter Ustinov , Kathleen Wilhoite , Zack O'Malley Greenburg , Laura Linney
MPAA Rating: PG 13
Year of Release: 1992


Lorenzo's Oil chronicles a couple's search for a cure for their son's progressive, degenerative, and presumably terminal disease. Michaela and Augusto Odones' five-year-old son, Lorenzo, is diagnosed with the most devastating form of Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) -- the childhood cerebral form . They are told that Myelin, the "insulation" around Lorenzo's nerves in the brain, breaks down over time and prevents these nerves from functioning. Only boys have the most severe form of this disease, because ALD is an inherited genetic disorder linked to the X sex chromosome. Victims die after losing all sensory functions . All known treatments are experimental, and none is rated as successful. No boy with this disease has ever survived. Though the parents enlist their son in the most promising of the experimental treatment programs immediately following his diagnosis, the disease progresses rapidly and things look hopeless.

Despite the pessimistic prognosis from all the experts, the Odones refuse to give up. While Augusto begins researching ALD himself , Michaela stays at their son's side. She devotes herself to keeping her child alive with a single-minded focus that alienates everyone around her, including, at times, her husband. The emotional strain takes its toll on their relationship, but neither loses hope nor faith.

In his quest for a treatment, Augusto Odone clashes with doctors, scientists, and support groups, who are skeptical that anything could be done about ALD, much less by laypeople. He persists, setting up camp in medical libraries, combing the medical literature looking for clues , reviewing animal experiments, badgering researchers, and questioning top doctors all over the world. It becomes clear to him that one problem he faces is the lack of a system for integrating knowledge about the disease.

Eventually, Michaela and Augusto take it upon themselves to organize an international symposium of experts and parents of afflicted boys. They begin to connect various unrelated and overlooked theories. Despite resistance from a disbelieving medical world, they finally connect the right ideas, discovering that a possible treatment of ALD lies in adding a certain kind of olive oil to their son's diet .

They contact over 100 firms around the world until they find an elderly British chemist who is willing to take on the challenge of distilling the proper formula. It proves successful in stopping the accumulation of the long chain fatty acids in the brain that have been causing their son's steady decline, thereby halting the progression of Lorenzo's disease.

The film ends with Lorenzo at the age of 14 showing definite improvement. Several healthy children are shown who, having followed a course of treatment with Lorenzo's oil , have remained symptom-free.

Theoretical contemplations

Because Lorenzo's Oil is based on a true story , this movie had a powerful effect as it brought the attention of the world to ALD in general.

Clients are often more impacted by a film that portrays real events than by fantasy stories. Therefore this movie had a strong effect on several of my clients, especially when I instructed them to watch it with conscious awareness . When clients learn to view a movie with conscious awareness, they are given a tool to develop increased awareness in real life and to increase their capacity to access their inner wisdom. Inner wisdom is more than knowledge. Whereas knowledge is simply acquired information, wisdom requires understanding on a deep level.

Since our rational mind is only a small part of the portal to our inner wisdom, watching with conscious awareness is a process in which we watch and listen with our whole body. Body awareness helps us to access inner wisdom through a felt sense rather than through mental perceptions. The awareness of our physical reactions is an important vehicle to increasing awareness.

The guidelines for watching a movie with conscious awareness instruct clients to view a film by paying attention to the story and to themselves. They learn to bring non-judging attention, curiosity, and acceptance to whatever is arising in their experience of the present moment . They observe how the movie's images, ideas, conversations, and characters affect their physical sensations and notice any tension or holding as they watch a movie. In all likelihood, a film's stimulants are similar to whatever unbalances these clients in daily life. To release tension they may experiment with "breathing into" any part of their body that feels strained. Another entryway into conscious awareness is to observe how the movie scenes affect their breathing.

As clients practice becoming aware of physical sensations that are triggered by emotions during a movie experience, they increase their capacity to tolerate unwanted emotions in everyday life without needing to suppress them, numb out, act out, or release them in other unhealthy ways. They do not need to resist these feelings any more because they become more familiar with them and eventually experience these emotions as just another energy in their body. Without resistance, emotions can run their course and do not get unnecessarily stronger. Consequently clients will be less likely to avoid a feared challenge and can develop the courage to face it because their anxiety no longer overwhelms or paralyzes them.

Eventually the fear or other previously rejected emotion will dissipate, and clients feel strong enough to take on the challenges that had prevented them from moving forward in their lives.         

Cinema Alchemy

My client, Tom, was depressed because of chronic pain in his hips and thighs. He had gone from doctor to doctor, and had seen chiropractors and acupuncturists. Nothing seemed to help. He felt so bad he didn't want to think about his situation any more. I noticed he had gained weight because he didn't exercise any more. The increased weight made his condition even worse. He told me that he felt deflated and ready to give up. I encouraged Tom to watch Lorenzo's Oil and explained the process of watching a movie with conscious awareness.

Tom is a scientifically-minded person. He was very receptive to this movie because the medical circumstances are well described. He even did some research on the Internet about Lorenzo's case. My client was impressed that Lorenzo Odone had turned 27 years old in 2005 and that Augusto Odone had received an honorary Ph.D. for his pioneering work in researching and discovering a significant treatment for ALD.

Tom was surprised about his own responses to employing the technique of watching with conscious awareness. First he felt even worse when he sensed the pain of the family Odones. He noticed a sinking feeling in his stomach. As I had advised him, he stayed aware of his physical sensations and even remembered to "breathe into" them.   As the movie progressed, it became increasingly easier for him to stay with his emotional experience in a conscious way. His "inner container" for previously rejected emotions grew larger and stronger. After a while the difficult feelings dissipated, and he noticed how he became more and more hopeful and excited. He even got in touch with a deep inner knowing, like a hunch or an intuition that he should not give up yet but keep looking for ways that can help heal his hips.

After watching Lorenzo's Oil , Tom started feeling less depressed and gained new energy to make phone calls in order to find a specialist who would be able to treat his ailment. It took him a while, but with growing determination, he found the right treatment eventually. Tom feels much better now.

Guidelines and questions for clients who are facing physical problems

While watching the movie:

•  Notice how Lorenzo's parents don't give up in spite of the extreme emotional strain they experience. They become very creative in their efforts to save their son.

•  What touches you most about them?

After watching the movie:

•  How have you coped with difficult challenges in your life before?

•  Check in with yourself whether you might have an inner knowing, like a hunch or an intuition about starting to look for new ways of healing.

•  Can you imagine how things could turn for the better, if you approached new creative solutions to your problem (possibly finding another doctor, a chiropractor, or a acupuncturist) with the determination, courage and creativity that Augusto and Michaela display in the movie?

•  Can you imagine how much stronger you would feel if you faced healing your physical challenge in the same way as they did?


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy