The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 

Dante Remus (Ion Fiscuteanu, "The Oak") is a retiree who lives alone in a cramped Bucharest apartment with his three cats.  He admits to drinking too much, but really hasn't had too much on the fourth day of a headache so worrisome he calls an ambulance.  After waiting forever he asks for help from his neighbors and eventually convinces Miki he is suffering from more than a hangover.  A third call from her brings an ambulance and Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu, "The Time of the Wolf"), the EMT who will accompany him through the hell that is the Romanian health care system and to "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu."

This 2005 Cannes Camera D’Or winner, cowritten (with Razvan Radulescu ) by director Cristi Puiu, is a masterpiece of black comedy and humanity, a film whose 150 minute running time flies by, a movie that is utterly compelling despite its foregone conclusion. Ion Fiscuteanu, a type of Romanian Ernest Borgnine, gives a masterful performance as a marginal old man who ultimately breaks your heart.

Puiu's film spends almost an hour in Lazarescu's apartment building, observing his life without providing much history.  We learn that he has a sister in Toronto (everyone has family in places other than Romania) and that he loves his cats (had Lazarescu trained them, he may have been Umberto D's seedy cousin). The bored dispatcher he calls is just the first to accuse his boozing as the root of his problems - it becomes a blackly funny repetition with every new character he meets and Lazarescu meets plenty.

With Mioara as his angel of death and ambulance driver Leo (Gabriel Spahiu, "High Tension") his Phlegyas, Lazarescu must compete with a bus disaster that has flooded area hospitals, and endure indifference, condescension, revulsion and judgmental harangues.  As the evening progresses in what feels like, but is not, real time, Lazarescu slowly loses all shreds of dignity and signs of comprehension until, ultimately, his upcoming passing seems a blessing in disguise.  At his side, Mioara must also face indignity, treated as a second class citizen by doctors overly impressed with their credentials (one, C. Everett Koop lookalike Florin Zamfirescu as Dr. Ardelean, dresses her down for hazarding an opinion, implies Lazarescu beat his family and calls him a pig!).  Ironies pile up until they begin to slip and slide.  As Lazarescu begs for water, the otherwise caring Mioara swallows a pill from Leo's sports bottle - then hands it back over to the front seat.  When a delirious Lazarescu is refused life-saving surgery (he's finally diagnosed with a subdural hematoma) because he cannot sign the authorization form, the doctor suggests Mioara drive him around until he becomes comatose, relieving him of legal burden.

The director has achieved stunningly naturalistic performances from his large cast, with each supporting player making an indelible impression, from Doru Ana ("The Lark") and Dana Dogaru as neighbors Sandu and Miki and the aforementioned Zamfirescu, stunning in his cruelty, to the eerie Zen-like calm of Alina Berzunteanu's Dr. Zamfir, the last diagnosing doctor. Puiu is playful with his symbolism, as evidenced by his titular character's triple-loaded name, but his really astounding achievement is how he transforms commonplace scenes with shimmering alternate meaning.  Lazarescu's immersion in a cat scan machine becomes a journey toward his tunnel of light, his pre-surgery prep the ritual cleansing of a dead body.

Puiu has envisioned this film as the first in a series of six - cause for celebration. If there is a better film than "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" this year, it will be a miraculous one for filmgoers.


An aging man carries on a one-way conversation with his three cats. He tells them that he isn’t feeling right and calls for an ambulance when he is staggered by a massive headache. He waits and waits for help to arrive and seeks the help of his neighbor and landlords who show compassion but are more interested in getting back to their jelly making. When the EMTs finally do arrive, they take him to a nearby hospital and this begins the journey to “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.”

Rumanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu, with co-writer Razvan Radulescu, doesn’t give us any backstory for the title character (played by Ion Fiscuteanu) as we are presented with the man in his current deteriorating state. He lives alone with his cats, has a sister living in another town and a daughter who migrated to Canada. He drinks too much, smokes and was operated on for a stomach ulcer years ago. Where he came from and what his life was like before this night are unimportant. What is important is what takes place during Mr. Lazarescu’s odyssey that takes him from one hospital to another and another and, yet, another in the middle of what will undoubtedly be his last night.

The first medico that Lazarescu meets is ambulance nurse Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu), a kind and compassionate person who wants to help the obviously failing fast man as she and her partner drive him to the first hospital. They arrive in the midst of an ER crisis as victims of a bus crash are being brought in. The head doctor has no time for the sickly Lazarescu and gruffly tells him, “You’re all right. Stop drinking!” and orders Lazarescu “out of my sight!” They head off to the next hospital and a different set of doctors who seem bent on ignoring any outside medical advice, especially from lowly Mioara..

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” doesn’t have heroes and villains in the conventional sense. The title character has brought on his physical failings himself and not by the “system”. As he is questioned by one doctor after another, he admits that he drinks heavily, normally, but hasn’t had “too much tonight.” The doctors, ignoring his complaints of severe headaches, instead keep examining his oversized liver and admonish him to stop drinking. (If you hear that bit of advice once, you hear it 100 times during the course of the film.) All the while, Mr. Lazarescu falls into a state of incoherence and physical disability. The doctors are well meaning but cold and clinical, as ER doctors who see 50 or 60 patients a night can be, towards the self-destructing man.

Director Puiu gives his film an almost documentary look as the fluid-moving cameras, overseen by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, gives an up-close-and-personal look into the emergency health care system in Bucharest. The medical personnel are shown as angels (Mioara), arrogant uncaring physicians and everything in between. Mr. Lazarescu, as the film rolls on, becomes a mere object as he is shuffled from one hospital facility to the next and each staff has to figure out what to do with him. No one listens to the man as he tries to tell them, with less and less success, about his pain.

Veteran Rumanian actor Ion Fiscuteanu is never quite heartbreaking as the titular character, presenting a pathetic being thrust into the medical bureaucratic machine. You feel sorry for the man, though, as he is trundled across town again and again, getting worse with each trip. Luminita Gheorghiu, as nurse Mioara, is the only one of the meds who appears to care about the ailing man. But, as the long night drags on, even her patience and humanity are sorely tested. “People aren’t saints and demons,” Puiu seems to be saying. They are just people.”

Cristi Puiu’s documentary style gives the film a realist look that makes you feel like you are following a slice of real life and not a beautifully crafted fiction. This makes “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” one of the best, most intriguing movies of the year. This is the kind of film that transcends borders and can talk to people worldwide. I hope it does. I give it an A.
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