The Death of Mr. Lazarescu


Posted to on January 12, 2006


Making its first appearance at last year's NY Film Festival and now scheduled for release at the Film Forum in April, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" is the harrowing tale of Lazarescu Dante Remus, a desperately ill 62 year old man, who like his namesake descends into an inferno made up of four different hospital emergency rooms in Bucharest over the course of an entire night.


Defying conventional cinematic expectations, director and screenwriter Cristi Puiu has made his central character totally unremarkable. Indeed, the only thing that distinguishes him--like Tolstoi's Ivan Illich--is the fact that he is sick and will die.


We first meet Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) in his dingy apartment that he shares with three cats. Widowed for a number of years, his only solace is in his pets and in alcohol. For the entire day he has been suffering from an acute headache and stomach ache. Only after he begins to vomit blood does he decide to call an ambulance. When his next door neighbors, a rough-hewn husband and wife distracted from their jelly-making chores, come to his aid, all they can do is lecture him about how his drinking will kill him and offer him homeopathic remedies. The interaction between Lazarescu and his neighbors has a dry comic quality that pervades the film until a darker tone sets in as illness deepens. No matter how much poor Lazarescu complains about his stomach ache, the wife seems determined that he eat some of the moussaka she has whipped up.


After the ambulance finally arrives, a female paramedic named Marioara (Mirela Cioaba) examines Lazarescu and decides that he needs to be taken immediately to the hospital. It is Lazarescu's bad luck to have fallen ill the very same day that a highway accident involving a bus has filled Bucharest's emergency rooms. Since the doctors, nurses and practically everybody who smells his breath decide that Lazarescu's problems are nothing more than a bad hangover, they either neglect him or pass him on to the next hospital like a baton in a relay race.


When they finally begin to examine him, they scold him for his drinking and generally treat him like a piece of meat. When he pees in his pants during a CAT scan, the attending physician heaps abuse on him. The last time I saw such callousness on display was in Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies," a documentary about Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In one scene, a doctor stands on a gurney above a catatonic patient and pours liquid food into a funnel connected to a tube that descends into the patient's mouth, all the while nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.


The only medical professional who treats Lazarescu with dignity and respect is Mariora, who acts as his Virgil during this descent into hell. Some of the most powerful scenes involve her speaking up to the doctors who constantly remind her that she is beneath them and to mind her own business. Although the film is focused on existential and moral questions, just as Tolstoi's tale was, it still has a class dimension. Mariora wants to do her duty as a professional and also probably identifies with Lazarescu as a fellow member of the lower orders of Romanian society.


However, this film is not really an indictment of Romanian society or an examination of the economic pressures that have turned medical care in post-Communist societies into a disaster area. Puiu's main inspiration is the minimalist cinema of Jim Jarmusch and the idea for making the film came from watching ER on Romanian television!


Perhaps it is understandable that Eastern European film-makers shy away from political or social commentary since the oppressive system that they lived under paid hypocritical lip-service to such an approach.


Although the production notes to "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" do not mention Hungarian director Bela Tarr, it is obvious that Cristi Puiu is a kindred spirit since they both acknowledge John Cassavetes as a major influence and focus on spiritual and moral matters. In a review of Tarr's "Satantango," a seven hour epic now showing in NYC, Jonathan Rosenbaum observed that Tarr evolved from a kind of savage social realism to a "dark metaphysical mode." Such an evolution is probably inevitable as the current generation of Eastern European and Russian directors find a way to synthesize earlier political perspectives with newer esthetic and philosophical outlooks.