The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
2005Director: Cristi Puiu
Cast: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminta Gheorghiu
azarescu Dante Remus is a 63-year old retired engineer living alone in a dirty Bucharest flat. Overly fond of alcohol, he calls the ambulance one night after suffering headaches and stomach pain. Accompanied by an exhausted medic not exactly pleased to be on the night shift, he is carted from overcrowded hospital to overcrowded hospital as his hopes, and life, slowly drain away.
The premise sounds unremarkable on paper, and one should be forgiven for dismissing The Death of Mr. Lazarescu as a blandly conventional east European social drama with vague moral ambitions.
Mr. Lazarescu, though, works as tightly as a play, the gripping story becoming increasingly engaging as the events evolve from composed linearity to complete psychological disintegration. It is a chain of relentless, sardonic, almost obstinate episodes that expose a flawed system too comfortable with its own status. By the end of the movie you feel like you’ve been there, in each of those lifeless hospital rooms, during each of those hopeful but almost aimless van rides and after each of those defeating dismissals, as an active accomplice rather than an unreceptive observer.
The long running time (154 minutes) complements the movie’s structural continuity rather than exacerbate its agonizing uneventfulness. Had it been any shorter, the movie would resemble a badly rehearsed low budget version of ER. And while director Cristi Puiu in fact mentions both ER and Eric Rohmer as his primary influences, you can’t help but notice a sense of cynicism in his statement. Because while ER is the emotional equivalent of watching a TLC house makeover show, Mr. Lazarescu is a wry, acutely observed and touchingly poignant story about a healthcare system falling apart.
As a commentary, Puiu has created a movie that observes and strikes but never condemns. And while there isn’t necessarily anything particularly new in what he is saying, having such crude reality exposed in front of your own eyes is as satisfying as it is excruciating.
But the real strength of the movie lies in its protagonists. Veteran actor Ion Fiscuteanu as Mr. Lazarescu is consistently brilliant, the kind of old man you would find sitting in a tame, dingy old bar from dinner to closing time. Yet his dry humour, naïve manners and old-fashioned scepticism trigger sympathy, and by the end you find yourself hoping for a resolution, a deserved closure for a man who isn’t, after all, asking for too much. His on-screen partner, the exceptional Luminta Gheorghiu as medic Mioara, soon becomes his only support, the agonizing night as harsh to her as it is to the old man.
And while you go into the movie knowing what to expect, (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu isn’t exactly the most subtle of titles), it soon becomes clear that this isn’t the point, after all.
Lazarescu is not about death, nor it is about life. It is a cruel but uniquely compelling portrayal of the selfishness of the human spirit, a movie that unlike many others stays with you long after you’ve seen it.
By: Sandro Matosevic
Published on: 2005-11-09