Touched with Fire (Paul Dalio, 2015)
Is manic depression a prerequisite for artistic genius? That is one of the questions posed by Touched with Fire (formerly known as Mania Days, according to its press kit). Or rather, it is posed by Marco, the male lead (an excellent Luke Kirby, from Take This Waltz). He’s a street poet and rapper who hates taking his medication because it douses that burning flame of creativity within. The same holds true for Carla (Katie Holmes – Miss Meadows – a little less good), an actual published poet who doesn’t have quite the same pride in her condition as does Marco, but similarly quits her meds to feel more alive. At the end of their resultant manic episodes, they both end up in the same mental institution, where they meet and, eventually, fall in love.
First-time feature-director Paul Dalio, himself diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young man, exerts enormous efforts to externalize a condition that, though it includes many outward physical behaviors, mainly takes place in the inner confines of one’s mind. Beautifully shot by Dalio’s wife, Kristina Nikolova (director, Faith, Love and Whiskey), Touched with Fire includes powerful images framed as if from the point of view of Carla and Marco, fully engaging us, for a while, in their downward and then, finally, upward trajectory. Unfortunately, while it may or may not be true that there is a link between manic depression and creativity – Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, whose book on the subject lends its title to this movie, certainly believes so – the poetry and raps spoken and performed by our main characters are so disappointingly banal – and, at times, just plain terrible – that they undercut much of the argument, since neither Marco nor Carla are, in fact, good at what they do.
Leaving that question aside, they are not without interest, however. We do care what happens to them, and we want them to get better. So, too, do their families, as represented by Christine Lahti (Petunia), on Carla’s side, and Griffin Dunne (Dallas Buyers Club), on Marco’s side. The problem is that no one seems to think that Carla and Marco are good for each other, and so much of the film is about two struggles: the one against their disorder, and the other against those who would keep them apart. It’s an engaging story, but one that sometimes seems confused about the argument it’s making. Carla and Marco so clearly need their pills, lest they pose a threat to themselves and others, yet half the movie seems to want them to be free to write (bad) verse. I would say that seems like a schizophrenic approach, but that’s a whole other condition.