Many of the films that were part of the so-called Romanian New Wave looked back on life during Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign, but some of them were set later. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, one of the most prominent films of the era, aims to portray the sense of community and humanity in the country post-Communism – and finds a bureaucratic system almost as inhumane as anything Ceauşescu could have come up with.
Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is a 62-year-old man who lives alone in a Bucharest apartment with his cats. Recently, he hasn’t been feeling well, but when he tries to call for an ambulance the operator is reluctant to send one and keeps asking him about his drinking habits. Later, Lazarescu knocks on his neighbor’s door and the couple gives him a few pills for his nausea – but they also admonish him for his drinking. After all, Lazarescu did have surgery some time ago for his ulcer and shouldn’t be drinking alcohol at all. He can’t stop though, and when the neighbors learn that there’s blood in his vomit, they decide to call for an ambulance.
This time, medical help arrives. Nurse Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu) suspects that Lazarescu may be gravely ill and agrees to take him to a nearby hospital. However, it’s going to be a long night as few doctors are willing to give Lazarescu the time of day…
Deeply dark sense of humor
Cristi Puiu’s film may have been critically celebrated, but its commercial appeal was limited. In a desperate attempt to sell the movie, the Romanian studio produced a poster that emphasized the film’s humorous aspects. It has to be seen to be believed; it actually tries to make the movie look like a heartwarming comedy-drama by James L. Brooks. It does in fact have a sense of humor – but a deeply dark, sad kind. Rather than make you laugh, Puiu’s work will more likely have you feel like pressing charges against every doctor in it. This is a portrait of a helpless, dying man being shuffled between one stressed-out, inefficient, authoritarian and uncaring physician after the other, with a worn-out yet angelic nurse as his only support up to the bitter end. It’s immensely depressing but also heartfelt and relevant, and not restricted to Romania – Lazarescu is undeniably dying and he’s been doing this to himself for a long time, but shouldn’t it be possible to allow him to die with dignity anyway?
Director Puiu shot the movie entirely at night and the handheld camera documents Lazarescu’s frustrating situation with a cold, clinical and unsentimental attitude. The final sequence brings no relief or ending whatsoever; we’re left pondering this man’s future just as abruptly as we were introduced to his life in the apartment. Fiscuteanu and Gheorghiu’s performances are stark and vividly real; especially the latter as her character tries to show the rude doctors some amount of respect while also standing her ground.
It’s a long movie, granted, and perhaps needlessly so. After a while, the refusals to treat Lazarescu become repetitious. Still, there is a sense of community here, among the little people. All they need now is for those in power to give a damn as well.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu 2005-Romania. 153 min. Color. Produced by Bobby Paunescu, Anca Puiu. Directed by Cristi Puiu. Screenplay: Cristi Puiu, Razvan Radulescu. Cast: Ion Fiscuteanu (Dante Remus Lazarescu), Luminita Gheorghiu (Mioara Avram), Gabriel Spahiu (Leo), Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Florin Zamfirescu.
Trivia: Original title: Moartea domnului Lazarescu.
Last word: “It is 55 minutes before they leave the apartment. I needed this duration to show him alone – especially for the first 15 minutes. You see, I am very scared of this loneliness. I am very scared of separation. The film was invited to 70 or 80 festivals, and I only went to five of them because I don’t like to leave home, to separate myself from those I love. So it was important to me to show him alone.” (Puiu, Film Society of Lincoln Center)