Cristi Puiu: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005)

reviewed by Dana Duma© 2007

One of the truly important Romanian films made during the last fifteen years or so, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu quickly grabbed the attention of local audiences after capturing an award in the Un certain regard program at the Cannes film festival. For me, the appearance of this film meant the materialization of an old cinephilic dream: the opportunity to purchase the latest issue of Cahiers du cinéma from a nearby kiosk and to read there about the international success of a Romanian filmmaker.

What I found on the pages of the famous journal surpassed the expectations of my dream. The comments by the French author were much more eloquent than the ones habitually dedicated by this magazine to Lucian Pintilie, the Romanian filmmaker most spoiled by international film critics. I cannot help but quote a few lines: “The film masterpiece is finally here. Cristi Puiu registers not so much a death as the vanishing, the dissolution of Mr. Lazarescu's corpse within a dispassionate landscape. More than that, this is the imaginary corpse of a character who has disappeared in the blink of an eye, and soon thereafter viewer and hospital personnel alike forget the old man, abandoned on a stretcher, abandoned amidst images that create a kind of a comedy as desperate as a cold metaphor for the degradation of the former satellites of the USSR .” [1]

An even more flattering observation can be found in another issue of Cahiers du cinéma : “Fast pace, efficiency, the incredible elegance of the film, sounding all of the alarms against the alcoholic paradise in order to puncture in vivo the entrails of the (Romanian? not necessarily!) hospital system. You might think of ER , but the cruelty, the arbitrarily merciless narrative curve brings us back to The Bicycle Thief [(Ladri di biciclette; dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1948)] .” [2] It is worth noting that never before has a Romanian filmmaker been compared to such a prestigious classic like Vittorio De Sica, and no Romanian film has ever been considered a masterpiece of such emotional magnitude as The Bicycle Thief. This high praise is most likely due to the unique quality of Cristi Puiu's film: its contagious compassion that is expressed without a pose; a compassion that permeates the description of a poor sick pensioner's odyssey as he is carried from one hospital to another. As in his debut film Staff and Dough (Marfa si banii, 2001), Puiu's trademark remains courage and simplicity, an efficiency in representing the milieu without recourse to invented situations, artificial constructions, or aesthetic effects.

Puiu admits that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is the first of a six film series under the title Six Stories from Bucharest Neighborhoods, which will develop the following themes: love thy neighbor (in Lazarescu); love between a man and a woman; love for parents; the passion for success, friendly love, and carnal love. The author explains that the project itself was inspired by Eric Rohmer, a filmmaker he very much admires, and he has therefore tailored his project as a replica of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales. Like his French guru, Puiu has a special gift for extracting profound revelations about life and death from these “little stories” about insignificant people. Like Rohmer, Puiu is a “moralist” who loathes a judgmental tone and “authoritative” conclusions. He talks about characters he knows best. Although he studied and graduated in Geneva, he has always surprisingly described himself as a “kid from the outskirts” who spent his childhood in a gritty high rise and was often happy. Yet he never shows any signs of inferiority because of this, nor rancor , and is arguably the first Romanian filmmaker who looks at this world with a tender eye and without a trace of malice. While the majority of Romanian filmmakers stubbornly rummage through the neighborhoods of Bucharest in search of opportunities to disparage people from the lower depths (criminals, prostitutes, drug pushers), Puiu presents on screen people who have managed amazingly to preserve their dignity. One of them is Mr. Lazarescu, the charming hero of his new film.

Recently retired, widowed with one daughter who lives in Canada, the sexagenarian shares his apartment with three cats, is universally disliked by his neighbors , and finds consolation from his loneliness in watching TV and in a few daily drinks. He has had his drinks on the day he gets sick, vomiting blood. He asks the neighbors for aspirin, suspecting he has a hangover—not unlike the emergency paramedic who responds to his call. His state worsens while she is giving him first aid, and he is taken to the hospital for better diagnostics and examination. This is how the sexagenarian—named Dante at the whim of the scriptwriters with a sense of dark humor —begins his journey through the hell of the reception rooms of several emergency hospitals where, after a hasty check up, the doctor on duty invariably sends him elsewhere. Everything comes to a head when, thanks to the intervention of the paramedic Mioara and her connections to an old friend in a hospital, a thorough examination is finally done and reveals the gravity of Mr. Lazarescu's ailment. A very likeable young doctor formulates the diagnosis in an amusingly cynical manner: “These neoplasms are remarkably beautiful. Worthy of the Discovery Channel.” A single neuro-surgical intervention could prolong for a bit the life of the patient, but unfortunately at this very moment the victims of a big road accident are being brought in. And yet again, Mioara's protégé has to be put in an ambulance, pass through the reception room of yet another hospital, and endure, almost unconscious, the bickering of doctors, arrogant and exhausted. When finally he is prepared for surgery, it is already too late and the catchy tune in 1960s-style, played on the soundtrack, is probably the last memory of Dante Lazarescu. The screen suddenly blackens as if hit by an axe. Thus ends the epic of a pensioner, alone and infirm, charming and full of humor ; an end that makes each viewer feel a bit guilty.

As the French critic has very aptly noted, the film is not an exposé of the Romanian hospital system. The two and a half hours of screen time offers only an accumulation of small signs of indifference, ennui, monotony, displayed by doctors and nurses; an accumulation of details pointing to the lack of equipment, which, when everything is said and done, reduces the chances to prolong the patient's life for a few weeks. No one is demonized, judged, pointed at. The admirable script, penned by Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu (who also co-wrote Stuff and Dough) makes us feel present “in real time” during the last six hours in the life of the hero, who is on his inexorable final voyage. What is surprising is the tone of the narrative: humor is always present and, although it is not a black comedy, irony ultimately adds nuances to the portraits of the individuals who help, treat, or admonish Mr. Lazarescu. The most successful secondary roles are thrown into high relief by the interpretations of Mihai Bratila (doctor “Big Mouth” from the tomographic ward), Dana Dogaru (the duplicitous neighbor), Florin Zamfirescu (the nervous doctor Ardelean), and Mimi Branescu (the insolent doctor Mirica).

The powerful impact of the film owes a lot to the astonishing characters created by Ion Fiscuteanu and Luminita Gheorghiu. Winner of the prestigious FIPRESCI award, the former makes Mr. Lazarescu as much annoying as he is endearing. Although he is a drinker (“because all real men drink”), he is not an "outcast" and never loses his dignity. He is afraid of death but prefers to embrace it instead of staying alive at the humiliating mercy of the health care system. As for the nurse Mioara, played by Luminita Gheorghiu, it is indeed rare to observe a character so natural in her compassion, so sympathetic in her efforts to find a short cut to save her abandoned patient. The ability to make us look deeply into the soul of the characters is undeniably the accomplishment of the director, but it owes a lot to the cameraman, Oleg Mutu, an old "accomplice" of Puiu: he shot his first fiction film, Stuff and Dough, as well as his short, Cigarettes and Coffee (Un cartus de Kent si un pachet de cafea, 2004), which received a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The whole film breathes sincerity and compassion! Therefore, it is not surprising that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu has won the hearts of critics and viewers alike around the world and is universally considered the most important Romanian film made after the fall of communism.

Translated from French by Christina Stojanova

Dana Duma, National University of Theatre and Cinema and Hyperion University, Bucharest;

Film critic for Contemporanul and Caiete critice


Notes

1] Jean-Philippe Tessé. Cahiers du cinéma 611 (avril 2006) : 19.

2] E.L. [probably “ Elisabeth Lequeret ” who has contributed to other issues]. Cahiers du cinéma 602 (juin 2005) : 21.


The Death of Mr. Lazarescu , Romania, 2005
Color, 153 minutes
Director:Cristi Puiu
Scriptwriter: Cristi Puiu, Răzvan Radulescu
Cinematography: Oleg Mutu
Set Design: Cristina Barbu
Music: Andreea Paduraru
Sound: Constantin Fleancu, Cristian Tarnavetki
Cast: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Gabriel Spahiu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Florin Zamfirescu, Mihai Bratila, Mimi Branescu
Producer: Alexandru Munteanu
Production Company: Mandragora-Romania, with the support of the National Cinema Center

Cristi Puiu: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005)

reviewed by Dana Duma© 2007

Updated: 28 May 07