Friday, April 28, 2017

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu, Romania, 153 minutes
Director: Cristi Puiu
Writers: Cristi Puiu, Razvan Radulescu
Photography: Andrei Butica, Oleg Mutu
Music: Margareta Paslaru
Editor: Dana Bunescu
Cast: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Bogdan Dumitrache, Mihai Bratila, Monica Barladeanu, Mimi Branescu, Rodica Lazar, Adrian Titieni, Clare Voda

With the strange and powerful Death of Mr. Lazarescu, you almost have to start by talking about what it's not. It's not a whodunit mystery even though the form of the title is straight out of that genre. It's certainly not a comedy, wry, black, or otherwise, although it appears that's what a marketing person decided was the way to sell it. "The most acclaimed comedy of the year," the cover of my DVD package ridiculously blares. "A black comedy with serious side effects." The movie is also not really any indictment of a healthcare system, though it's easier to see how someone could make that mistake. The Romanian healthcare system does not exactly come off like an innocent bystander here, but the more closely you pay attention to the circumstances and context the less clear it becomes who if anyone is at fault. If anything, it's an indictment of life and death, like the old joke about the restaurant with bad food and small portions.

But I repeat, it's not a comedy (except, maybe, a version of the "man plans, God laughs" jibe). But the package messaging alarmed me that I had misremembered the movie, which left me floored the first time I saw it. So this time I started with the extras, where I was relieved to find an uncomfortable director and cowriter Cristi Puiu nervously walking that one back in an interview, along with other misconceptions. In fact, I like very much Puiu's own term for what he's trying to do here: the "cinema of testimony." It's good because perhaps the nearest relative to this movie is a documentary, Frederick Wiseman's Near Death. It's equally as clinical, but Puiu's fictional element brings a wholly more satisfying pathos and symmetry to it, which almost feels classical in its simple structure. After talking about everything that it is not, it's time to talk about what The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is. See title.

That's all. It's really as simple as that. Our hero, played by Ion Fiscuteanu, is a few weeks short of turning 63. His name is Dante Remus Lazarescu—unpack that one awhile. He lives by himself with three cats in a slovenly flat in Bucharest. He is endearingly defensive when people criticize his cats. He drinks chronically—a neighbor woman confides that she thinks he has been a bad influence on her husband, who is in his 40s. Lazarescu's wife died eight years earlier. His daughter is married and living in Toronto. He has an older sister who lives outside of Bucharest. Lately, he has been having severe headaches, and that day he has been vomiting since morning. He reluctantly decides he should get himself looked at and calls for an ambulance. It takes hours to get there, which appears to be the accepted norm. Everything that happens to him as he turns himself over to the medical system is familiar and understandable: different opinions about what's wrong with him (even as he is visibly fading over the course of the night), a severe bus accident that is taking up available medical resources all over the city, and a hostile attitude toward Lazarescu because of his drinking.

The latter is a particularly interesting point. It makes sense—alcohol consumption is a terrible thing to combine with medical procedures. Some 14 years earlier Lazarescu had been operated on for stomach ulcers. "Why do you drink if you had ulcer surgery?" is a question he hears over and over from medical staff that night. It's a reasonable question and their own often venomous attitude toward him because of his drinking is also understandable. Hospitals see the results of drinking every day. Lazarescu tries to bluster through, saying, "But isn't it your duty?" But that only makes them more hostile and he soon learns to just take their abuse. There's no way to get the alcohol out of his system now.

I said Near Death may be the only close relative of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, but another movie it's obvious cousin to is another brilliant Romanian picture, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It's fair to call both the "cinema of testimony." They are simple yet powerful accounts of anonymous individuals interacting within the bounds of anonymous state power. There's nothing special about Mr. Lazarescu. Everyone dies. He's in the right age range, he hasn't taken care of himself, and he has a lot of bad luck on the last night of his life. These things are sad but they happen. That's what people say, isn't it?

In a way, the last night of his life is so bleak that laughing about it is almost a reflex response. Maybe that's what the marketing people went with. The events are just what can happen whenever anyone interacts with a large organization: renewing a driver's license, dealing with legal matters, or perhaps at a bank trying to get a loan. It's all of our nightmares about how we will die. There will always be more hoops to jump through and that fog of uncertainty about the effectiveness of anything. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is about bureaucracy as much as anything, the necessity for it and the endless small mistakes it makes grinding people down even as it serves them. An ambulance nurse, Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), accompanies Lazarescu throughout the night. She tries to expedite his care, she is a human connection, but she makes her own mistakes. Besides, she's only a nurse in a power structure ruled by physicians and specialists.

The first hospital sends him to a second hospital. They are way too busy with the bus accident and they believe Lazarescu is drunk. The nurse thought it might be colon cancer but they deride that. At the second hospital they decide it's neurological. But the second hospital does not have the resources for further tests that need to be run on him immediately and he is sent to a third hospital. As the night goes on the diagnoses come into focus: a subdural hematoma (a brain injury) and likely liver cancer. As these facts come into focus so does the hopelessness of his case. In the end, again for reasons that make sense in context, he is taken to a fourth hospital. The movie ends abruptly, likely intended as the moment of his death. The onslaught of detail overnight is exhausting and intense and there's no relief in the end, just a cessation, like death itself. Yet this movie also has so much compassion—not just for Lazarescu but for the healthcare system itself, with its harassers and champions, for humans and "the human condition"—that overall it has an exhilarating effect. It's a great one.

No comments:

Post a Comment