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'Lorena' review: Docu-series sheds new light on sensational  '90s incident

Lorena Gallo Bobbitt in Amazon Prime Video's documentary

Lorena Gallo Bobbitt in Amazon Prime Video's documentary "Lorena." Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video

DOCUMENTARY "Lorena"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video

WHAT IT'S ABOUT On the morning of June 23, 1993, police in Manassas, Virginia, get a call about a man whose penis has been severed by his wife. The rest is tabloid TV history. "Lorena," produced by Oscar winner Jordan Peele, features extended interviews with Lorena Bobbitt, now 48 — and using her maiden name, Gallo — and her ex-husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, 51. There are also extensive interviews with police, lawyers, neighbors, reporters — seemingly anyone who had anything to do with this. 

Lorena Bobbitt, who was born in Ecuador and raised in Venezuela, said her husband had sexually assaulted her for several months. John Bobbitt said she assaulted him after he had told her he was leaving her.  A former Marine who came from a broken home, he was charged with marital sexual assault, while she was charged with malicious wounding. Both trials, in '93 and '94 respectively, ended in acquittals.

MY SAY If "Lorena" sounds like a four-hour root canal procedure, then congratulations. Your gag reflex is perfectly normal. Four hours? On this? But 25 years hence, a little perspective might help before forging ahead:

Shortly after the Manassas cops got that early morning call, the TV tabloids swooped in, followed quickly by the paper ones. The late-night talk guys soon joined the circus, and when they could no longer ignore the story, the august evening news programs did as well. Soon, there was no escaping Bobbitt. When the trials began, the wash-rinse-repeat cycle began anew, this time on steroids.

It was as if nothing else was going on in the world. TV had developed a muscle memory from covering Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher in 1992, which was triggered on a nuclear scale for the Bobbitts, then a thermonuclear one for O.J. Simpson a year later.

Yet as "Lorena" establishes, TV missed the real story entirely. As leering voyeur, it was blinded to the scourge of spousal abuse, violence against women and sexual misconduct in the workplace. The government slowly plodded toward action, but no thanks to TV. That severed penis was the big story because as "Lorena" also notes, the news media was run by men. TV did stoke, or exploit, a roiling battle-of-the-sexes undercurrent in the culture, but seen now from this remove, it was all heat, no light.

Over four hours, "Lorena" builds a pair of arguments: That there was a serious issue here, which still has real currency; and that Lorena Bobbitt herself likely did have a temporary break with sanity when she cut off her husband's penis. (Watch to find out why, but gird yourself first.)

Nevertheless, the director, Joshua Rofé, plays with reasonable doubt in the first hour. John Wayne Bobbitt, now gray, with middle-age padding, seems so blandly inoffensive during these interviews. All these years later, he sticks to his story — that he did nothing wrong.

But to paraphrase the line, first there's the tragedy, next up the farce. By the fourth hour, he's turned into a clown a few years after the trials. He dabbles as a star in porn films, becomes a Howard Stern regular and works as a celebrity bouncer at a Nevada brothel.

Then things turn dark. He also assaults  women and very nearly kills one. He serves time in jail, and more time after that. Cue to Bobbitt, who continues to insist he did nothing wrong, which — viewed in this damning context — is either the denial of a pathological liar or a madman.

Lorena Gallo now runs her own foundation, which focuses on domestic abuse. She says here that she continues to submit to interviews — even humiliating ones — because "I look at this as a double-edged sword. I know the jokes are going to be there, as long as I can shine a light on the issue of domestic violence."

BOTTOM LINE First-rate film that succeeds in re-working the story we thought we knew into the story we should have known all along.

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