Cristi Puiu’s first feature, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, put the Romanian New Wave on the international map, winning Cannes’ Un Certain Regard prize in 2005. The film’s success created a road map for other Romanian directors to follow. Like so many New Waves before it – from the Italian neo-Realists, through the French New Wave, and on to the new cinemas of Africa and Asia – realism and a commitment to revealing lived material and political experience, are a crucial part of the new Romanian cinema. In addition to ideological and aesthetic concerns, another big reason for the realist style in these films is that they are made by young filmmakers working outside of the cinema establishment of their respective countries on limited budgets.
Realism as a style, however, is a slippery proposition, defined more by the ways in which it breaks formal traditions of the past, rather than by a stable set of cinematic techniques. Puiu uses a handheld camera and very long takes to give the sense of life unfolding in real time, but at the same time, the film is carefully scripted, expertly acted, and thematically unified. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is deeply grounded in the country’s present-day reality and in a disenchantment with the failed promises of a post-Ceaușescu Romania. Nevertheless, the film transcends these concerns and to address more existential questions in a surprisingly funny manner.
The film begins as the portentously named Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), a retired professor, wakes up in the evening, amidst the chaos of his apartment, to lovingly feed his many cats. The opening is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s 1973 film The Long Goodbye (which could be an alternative title for Puiu’s film), where the similar likability and vulnerability of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is established by his relationship to his cat. Lazarescu is similarly ill-prepared for the harshness of the world in which he lives. His name conjures both the brother doomed to be killed by his twin and the poet who wanders from Jerusalem into the plane of the afterlife. Lazarescu wakes with a headache and calls an ambulance as he is concerned about a recent ulcer surgery. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he meets his neighbours, who are willing to help him up to a certain point, but refuse to accompany him to the hospital. The rest of the film is comprised of Lazarescu’s nightmarish journey through the night in Bucharest, moving from hospital to hospital, with Miora (Luminita Gheorghiu), a weary ambulance nurse, acting as his Virgil.
Puiu was inspired by two events. He had a severe form of appendicitis, which caused him to suffer a bout of depression and brought on a period of hypochondria. He also learned of an actual news story about a man who was refused admission to five hospitals over the course of a night and was abandoned on the street to die. The film is a sensationally well-choreographed balance between a morbid sense of absurdity and true tragedy. One of the ways that Puiu accomplishes this is by showing us the competing motivations of the different people in the film. Lazarescu’s increasingly urgent need for medical attention is the constant against which all the desires of others are contrasted.
Throughout the film, Lazarescu is berated by his neighbors, nurses, and doctors about his drinking. Lazarescu’s responses shift from guilt to exasperation as he is asked about it over and over. At first he says that he just drinks a little like anyone else, but slowly becomes more defiant as the judgmental attitudes of others begin to accumulate. When confronted with Lazarescu’s pathetic condition and the reality of illness, it is a natural desire for the people who meet him to explain it away as being his fault and bad choices. Lazarescu’s neighbors even blame him and his “foreign,” Hungarian wife for introducing them to drink. The idea that mortality is out of your control and that death can come randomly for them is too terrifying to face.
Mr. Lazarescu has the misfortune of taking ill on the night of a bus crash. The hospitals are filled with injured patients from the accident and Lazarescu, as an older alleged drunk, with no family (widowed, with a daughter in Canada), is a low priority. Younger more ‘innocent’ victims deserve more attention. In each hospital we see small dramas play out. Nurses and doctors discuss their family problems, romantic hopes and amuse themselves through the drudgery of a workday. Lazarescu’s last day on earth is just another day at the office for them. Only Miora stays with him, through a combination of sympathy and the desire to do her job properly, in keeping with her own code of conduct. When she urges doctors and nurses to help her patient, she is frequently reminded of her low status in the hierarchy of medical professionals. Both she and Lazarescu are at the bottom of their own respective pecking orders. The film reflects on a post-communist world where there is a new focus on the young and vigorous and a valorisation of competitive, consumerist, capitalist culture.
Several critics have compared The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Hospital (1970), which uses multiple perspectives and keen observation to provide or portrait both a specific place and an analysis of how an institution works. Puiu’s style is similar in that he pays close attention to side conversations and procedural details, but ultimately he captures something more metaphysical. As the night proceeds, Lazarescu becomes increasingly unable to speak. He jabbers about memories and immediate feelings in a stream of words that slowly become unintelligible. As he journeys through the night, his humanity is slowly stripped away. He changes from a man with a home and a past and affections into an abandoned indigent. Just as his body was animated with spirit and soul, it devolves into a slab of inanimate meat. The magic of this film is that Puiu films all that he sees with great and magnanimous compassion. He does not fault people for the selfishness or their indulgences and the film leaves room for the audience to see moments of kindness and care. There is no didacticism here, just a deep interest in life and human frailty, shown with a knowing sense of all our contradictions.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005, Romania, 153 mins)
Prod: Alexandru Munteanu, Bobby Păunescu and Anca Puiu Dir: Cristi Puiu Scr: Cristi Puiu and Răzvan Rădulescu Phot: Andrei Butica and Oleg Mutu Ed: Dana Bunescu Art Dir: Cristina Barbu Sound: Andreea Paduraru
Cast: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Doru Ana.