One of 2008's most notable documentaries, "The Beautiful Truth" is about an all-natural treatment for cancer - a subject that in another director's hands might be dry and foreboding but is here illuminating, touching, funny, sad, rage-inducing, provocative, entertaining and hopeful. It's Michael Moore without the truculence, PBS without the pretension, CNN without the commercial grandstanding.
"The Beautiful Truth" tells the story of Max Gerson and his Gerson therapy, a treatment that requires around-the-clock intake of organic fruit-and-vegetable drinks. To detoxify the body, coffee-based enemas are also employed - a fact that director Steve Kroschel frames with mild amusement through drawings and interviews with small-town Alaskans who question Gerson's ideas.
The small town is home for Kroschel and his son Garrett, an inquisitive 15-year-old who is the documentary's front man.
Garrett begins by knowing nothing about Gerson therapy and ends up (with the help of his filmmaker father) traveling the United States and Mexico to meet people with expertise on the treatment, alternative cancer therapies, and the U.S. food industry, whose chemical additives have been linked to obesity and other health problems.
The skateboarding Garrett is a perfect stand-in for a general audience that knows little about Gerson (who died in 1959) or his medical philosophies, which are advocated today by his daughter Charlotte, and practiced by scores of patients whose cancers were considered death sentences by the medical establishment. We meet a woman who, five years earlier, had Stage IV ovarian cancer (the most lethal stage), and says she beat her illness with Gerson therapy. We meet a woman who was riddled with tumors but whose recovery is attributed to juicing and organic foods. And we meet (through historical photos) Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher who said his diabetes was cured by Gerson's diet and that Gerson was "one of the most eminent geniuses in the history of medicine."
We also meet Gerson through archival video taken of him at his professional prime, but "The Beautiful Truth" is more about the present than the past, and Kroschel does an admirable job of weaving in related subjects, including obesity and food additives; the possible dangers of mercury tooth fillings; and the medical establishment's reliance on corporate money.
"The Beautiful Truth" has its faults, most notably in its omissions. While the film gives time to critics of Gerson therapy
(including Bay Area doctor and radio host Dean Edell), who say there's no medical evidence of its success, "The Beautiful
Truth" doesn't adequately elucidate their opposition. For example, the Gerson Institute's clinic is in Mexico because it uses drugs that the Food and Drug Administration bans for cancer treatment, but the documentary doesn't stress that. Nor does it mention that a onetime supporter of Gerson therapy, an Oregon naturopathic physician named Steve Austin, tracked Gerson patients and found few cases of cancer recovery.
Still, "The Beautiful Truth" succeeds because of its sympathetic provocation: Its engaging narrative and personal stories force us to question the U.S. medical establishment's rejection of Gerson's therapy and to question the establishment's relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. Audiences will be inspired to seek more information about the therapy, natural treatments for cancer and the American food industry's reliance on artificial additives to make tasty products. After watching this film, even buttered and salted popcorn - a staple of the moviegoing experience - takes on added (and disturbing) significance.