Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005): Romanian Cristi Puiu’s Brilliant Film

Cristi Puiu’s brutally powerful and brilliantly honest Romanian film centers on Mr. Lazarescu, a retired engineer, who’s experiencing the last day of his life. The film becomes humanistic by exploring its absence. It depicts a post-modern world where love for our fellow man doesn’t exist, and in which a man’s basic needs for help and care are absurdly ignored by those around him. Puiu holds that, whether you die as a hero or drop dead on the street, in the end, you’re always alone.

“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” is a satiric condemnation not only of Romania’s healthcare system but also of human vanity, complacency, and indifference in the face of suffering. The movie assumes particular resonance these days due to our own natural disasters, what with Hurricane Katrina and images of New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome, with numerous people waiting to be helped.

The filmmakers are careful not to sketch their lead character’s background in too much detail. They show his cats, his clothes, his apartment, offering enough information for the audience to imagine the rest of his life. But they don’t “tell” Lazarescu’s back-story, because the film is ultimately not about him, it’s about the forces acting upon him and through him.

Given the bad news built into the title, the prospects of Lazarescu are not good. Even so, he shows a brick-faced patience and fortitude as he sits in his lonely Bucharest apartment, engaging his three cats in conversation, while nursing a terrible headache. He has not been well for the past few days, with pains originating from an old ulcer surgery and spreading up into his head. On a Saturday night, taking an aspirin, he begins to vomit and decides, as any normal person would, to call an ambulance. He waits, and waits. The ambulance takes a half-hour to arrive, and its absence is presented in real-time.

The bored ambulance dispatcher advises Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) to lay off the booze, and stop calling. For his part, Lazarescu insists that he hasn’t had much to drink, today, though admits to being a hard drinker, most days. It takes him two calls to get the dispatcher to promise an ambulance. Meanwhile, Lazarescu calls his sister, who lives far away, and tells her about the strange headache. She too advises him to lay off the booze, and once again, he insists he hasn’t had that much to drink; today “You know the rest” repetition is crucial to the film’s impact.

When the ambulance takes forever to arrive, and out of desperation, Lazarescu knocks on the door across the hall. The couple that live there are in the midst of cooking a jam, and don’t have much time for Lazarescu and his troubles. Ironically, Lazarescu brings his neighbors endless bickering and foolishness into his life. Still, the man advises him to try laying off the booze. Lazarescu draws a breath and insists he hasn’t had that much to drink today, though he admits to being a hard drinker, most days.

After Lazarescu tries an aspirin to dull the pain and vomits, one of the ambulance workers smells his breath and hoots: “What have you been drinking” Lazarescu is too addled to explain, and his affable neighbor doesn’t bother to set the record straight.

Thus begins Lazarescu’s nightlong odyssey through Bucharest hospitals. The first emergency room is tied up with victims from a bus crash. Lazarescu is then sent to a second hospital, where there’s long negotiation over whether to let him cut in line for a scan, and still another arbitration with a bored, impassive surgeon who misreads the earlier diagnosis but refuses to be corrected by the lowly ambulance attendant, who, by default, becomes Lazarescu’s lone ally in the pursuit of medical salvation. Eventually, he’s shipped to a third hospital, by which point, the film’s title begins to feel like the promise of a happy ending.

Lazarescu’s health deteriorates throughout the night, as he loses the ability to stand, walk, or control his bladder. A third hospital accepts him, but balks at performing an operation since he is incapable of signing a disclaimer agreement. A fourth hospital finally accepts him for surgery, about eight hours after his call for ambulance. By the time he’s shaved for his operation, he has lost consciousness.

Puiu gets the right tone for his narrative, a combination of desolate truthfulness with black comedy, not only to track Lazaresc’s “slow disappearance,” but also to imbue the movie with irony, pity, outrage and emotional intensity.

The text was triggered by the moral tales of Erich Rohmer, but it’s also Puiu’s reaction to the American TV show “E.R.,” which is syndicated in Romania. The director tries to find the equivalent Romanian story to “E.R.” In the American show, the movement of the characters is fast and amazing, but in Romania, Puiu says, “doctors and everyone else live in slow motion, as if they were on Valium, and still had 500 years left to live. There’s time for everything, so why hurry” The rhythm of the Romanian milieu provides the strangest material for creating suspense; the typically Romanian slowness reinforces the buildup of tension.

Puiu doesn’t portray Lazarescu as “a victim of his fate,” either. He’s just an ordinary mortal (out of a Samuel Beckett play) in a hole he has dug for himself. A stubborn guy, Lazarescu is sure that whatever he thinks is right, and never looks further. He is an active participant in the indifference around him. On this particular night, he is facing a lonely end, that’s both banal and disturbing.

The name Puiu chose for this man is evocative of “Lazarus,” whom Jesus famously raised from the dead, though the bible never tells what he died of. In the movie, Lazarescu’s diagnosis contradicts into infinite enigma as the story unfolds.

There’s heavy use of symbolism, weaving highly charged names into the fabric of this man’s fatal night. Names like Dante, Virgil, Remus, and Angel were chosen for their particular resonance. And while they offer hidden meanings, they also provide irony and play. We observe a man dying, the last hours of his life, when he has to deal with what he’s been given–words, phrases, names, and so one. Above all, the film deals with the pertinent question of how do you say goodbye to this world amid the chaos of stupid, ordinary things.

Cold and indifferent as the doctors and nurses are, they are not villains, any more than Lazarescu is necessarily heroic. Working for large, impersonal bureaucracies, and faced with suffering on a large scale, they need to toughen up.

The director is young, only 38, and he has chosen this desolate topic for his movie out of his own fear of dying. After his first film, “Stuff & Dough,” was shown in Cannes in 2001, Puiu sank into a depression that lasted two years. He says he has survived his anxieties and nightmares by writing about them and filming them. The film reflects Puiu’s hypochondria, as for two years, he surfed the Internet for problems he thought he had.

Stylistically, Puiu was also inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s dryness and minimalism. Creatively, he’s closer to the style of Raymond Depardon or John Cassavetes, but he’s mostly inspired by Eric Rohmer’s economy of means and ethics. Like Rohmer, Puiu expresses the deepest human anxieties with an apparent lightness and from a distance.

Puiu and writer Radulescu have honed their dialogues with careful attention to what is left unsaid. Because the film is about communication, he shows relationships between three characters: Two people talk and the third person mediates. But Puiu also shows that this triangular relationship doesn’t work at all.

Cinematographer Oleg Mutu’s camera doesn’t move around by chance, a function of limited budget and also meticulous determination of camera angles and movements. Many shots are taken from a shoulder level, which gives the camera a subtle “human” presence that deliberately contradicts the otherwise infinite indifference. Puiu captures the dialogue and the movement of the characters as they’re happening. The camera’s presence can be felt, particularly in situations where there is no real connection between the characters. Nonetheless, the viewers are granted just enough space and time and distance to be able to observe the proceedings at their own pace.

To generate sympathy and a backhanded comic effect, Puiu uses long rhythms of often hopeless scenes. Lazarescu isn’t lying there feeling sorry for himself. He’s become like a movie camera himself, filming the last night of his life, attentively, impartially, but not indifferently. A hospital with such oppressive ambience offers an ideal setting for a comedy, and Puiu gives Lazarescu material for a rich and highly revealing “last film” of the world he’s leaving. At the end of the film, Dr. Angel is called but he remains invisible.

Puiu gets as much creative excitement from what he leaves out as from what he puts in. There are no exteriors in the movie, and nature is absent. It’s a nocturnal road movie in a confined space. Puiu’s first film “Stuff & Dough” also took place in a car, reflecting his fascination with confinement. To create the illusion of “real time,” long stretches of the film dote on the excruciating (and funny) properties of being marooned in a never-ending present. Puiu tries to create a feeling of real time for the slow disappearance of Lazarescu, while giving the viewer time to absorb and experience first-hand the film’s shifting moods of irony, pity, anger, frustration, and powerlessness.

Ion Fiscuteanu, in the title role, gives a commanding performance as a once-proud man who is condemned to untimely death. His plight is so heartbreaking, his suffering so overpowering that the whole film feels like a documentary.

If there’s a hint of surrender and affirmation in such intensity, it’s out of respect for the indifference of the universe. Puiu’s film is dark, but you’re filled with hope when you leave the theater. A dark existential comedy, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” is rooted in the theater of the absurd and theater of cruelty. Despite a running time of 154 minutes, you’ll find yourself riveted to the screen, as you watch the miserable treatment that Lazarescu receives and the endless humiliations he endures.