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'Fire' catches every side of the abortion debate

Abortion is the elephant in the room of American discourse. The issue has been so polarized with rhetoric for so long that it’s no longer possible even to discuss it without falling back into orthodoxy or screaming fits. So we don’t discuss it. End of story.

‘‘Lake of Fire’’ is thus an insurmountably rude provocation that’s also necessary: a sprawling, maddeningly uneven, at times profoundly upsetting 2Æ-hour documentary essay that forces us to ask what, precisely, abortion means to the women who have one, to the people who oppose it, and to ourselves. If you even think you have an opinion on the subject, the movie’s essential viewing.

Not surprisingly, the author of this piece of cultural shock treatment is Tony Kaye, the British filmmaker (‘‘American History X’’) and legend in his own mind who has been working on ‘‘Lake of Fire’’ for 16 years. Shot in opalescent black and white, the film lacks voice-over narration and lets us pick through the minefield on our own. Kaye has made the movie as much to rattle his own assumptions as ours; that turns out to be one of its strengths.

The approach is deceptively simple. ‘‘Lake of Fire’’ doesn’t just give us voices from both camps in the abortion debate but from the rational and lunatic wings within each camp, and from thoughtful midpoints in between. For every evangelical crackpot like Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry or the late Paul Hill (seen here railing against the unrighteous not long before he went out and murdered a doctor who provided abortions), there’s an earnest defense, devout or not, of the irreducibility of life.

For every pro-choicer fearing a new era of back-alley botch jobs or a medical worker describing terrorist acts at clinics, there’s a fatuous gadfly like bio-ethicist Peter Singer, theorizing that murder only counts when the victim can conceptualize death.

The pro-lifers do end up looking worse, if only because the most extreme among them are possessed by a sense of apocalyptic doom that renders them freakish and easily mocked. In the end, ‘‘Lake of Fire’’ isn’t evenhanded because it recognizes that abortion is to some people the front line in a larger moral jihad, and that the subjugation of ‘‘sinners’’ and control of women is the end goal. (The film’s title comes from the place in hell where the Holy Rollers say the unworthy will go.)

The great divide turns out not to be political or even religious but a matter of primal wiring: There are people on both sides who want to discuss, convince, resolve, and there are those who want to obliterate what they can’t stand.

And there are the women and the fetuses, of whom we see a lot. You’re quickly grateful ‘‘Lake of Fire’’ is in black and white, because the unblinking graphic footage of tiny extracted body parts and archival photos of corpses with protruding coat hangers would be impossible to take in color. This is arrant sensationalism and, again, necessary to Kaye’s argument: He wants the most committed pro-choicers to understand exactly what it is they’re defending; the most fervent pro-lifer to see exactly what a desperate woman is capable of.

The movie often doesn’t play fair. It would help to know that the first procedure we see, of a 20-week fetus, is not remotely the norm, but Kaye is looking to slap us around at that point. At other times, ‘‘Lake of Fire’’ is almost spookily tender: A long sequence with Norma McCorvey — the ‘‘Roe’’ of Roe v. Wade — leads us on this woman’s long, strange journey, culminating in what has to be one of the great ‘‘reveal’’ shots in recent movies.

We could have heard from more women — of the men, the atheist/pro-life jazz critic Nat Hentoff is the most articulately thought-provoking — but ‘‘Lake of Fire’’ grasps that while men talk about this issue, women live it. That’s why the section on McCorvey is so sympathetic and why the final segment is so devastating.

Kaye follows a pregnant woman through an abortion, from check-in to check-out. It’s her fifth procedure; she’s 28 but looks years older. A victim of abuse, she’s also a survivor. The camera unblinkingly documents the sights and sounds of the medical removal of the fetus — or its killing, if you prefer. Then it hovers near the woman in the recovery room, letting her talk both honestly and self-defensively before caving in to exhausted tears.

After 152 epic minutes, ‘‘Lake of Fire’’ comes down to this: If you’re not living this woman’s life, maybe you shouldn’t tell her what to do.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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