Lost in the Movies: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Around 10:00 at night, Domnul Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), a 63-year-old Romanian widower who likes to drink, is feeling a bit queasy. By 6:00 the next morning, he's lying on a gurney in a hospital room that looks more like a morgue - he's comatose and his head is being shaved in preparation for surgery. In between, Lazarescu is escorted from hospital to hospital, indifferent doctor to indifferent doctor, his only sympathetic companion the nurse who rides with him in the ambulance and becomes increasingly frustrated with the cold shoulder - or outright rudeness - they encounter on their journey through the night. None of this is giving much away - indeed, the title is more suggestive than the movie, as we don't actually see Mr. Lazarescu die (though it doesn't seem like it will be long by the end). Lazarescu is what Hitchcock would call a MacGuffin - a device to hook the audience so they'll stick around for the real point: an exposé of a shockingly careless and overcrowded Romanian medical system and, even more pointedly, a fascinating study of human nature and "professionalism" in action.

In a way, this is problematic. When we meet Lazarescu, he is slovenly, inarticulate, and pathetic. Still, he earns our sympathy simply by standing (or slumping) in front of director Cristi Puiu's camera and struggling to articulate his ills, to which his mildly friendly neighbors seem mostly indifferent. Yet as the film wears on, and old man Lazarescu becomes increasingly disheveled and sickly, he becomes less subject than object. By film's end, Puiu and we in the audience are almost as guilty of neglect and indifference as the various doctors who shuttle their patient off to the next unlucky medic. The nurse becomes our protagonist to a certain extent, suffering alongside Lazarescu and moving from scolding him to (ineffectively) scolding the practitioners who refuse him care (various excuses are used: he's an alcoholic and doesn't deserve treatment, he needs surgery and we can't do it here, the patient's still conscious - he's not - and thus has to sign a waiver, etc.). Even she is gone by the final moments.

The film could be bleak, but instead - perhaps because Puiu cheats by withdrawing us from Lazarescu's largely interior suffering - it is fascinating and at times even comic. Puiu has described the movie as a "black comedy" and indeed, it is at times darkly humorous to see the gap between the doctors' cool assurance and their inability to save one man's life or even ease his pain. The film also holds the fascination of documentary - even the more authentic forms of reality television - as the shaky camera voyeuristically picks up on little details: the cute young doctor's assistant blushing and flirting with the slightly older doctor between bouts of curtly trying to dismiss Lazarescu, the brash young doctor (he looks about 19) who orders everyone around and fatalistically assesses Lazarescu's dim chances of surviving the night, the hushed tone in the receptionist's voice as she describes the end of all-night shift, while in the background, a vacuum drones monotonously, its tones oddly soothing. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu won prizes across the globe in 2005 and 2006, in film festivals and critics' societies. Curiously, despite the comic undertones existing subtly alongside the verité authenticity and grim hospital decor, the box declares this film "the most acclaimed comedy of the year" (emphasis mine). Now that's funny.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner.

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