#22: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) – dir. Cristi Puiu
Based on a true story, this dramatic satire – I think that that classification fits more than “dark comedy” – highlights some critical issues with the Romanian healthcare system, which is painted as a largely uncaring and harsh web of doctors who would rather pass the problems of the ailing Mr. Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) to whichever other hospital will take him. It is certainly an infernal journey, to refer back to the use of “Dante” as the main character’s name. The film’s international success, visible in the many awards it won (including the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival), made it one of the catalysts for the Romanian New Wave of cinema in the mid-2000s and put director Cristi Puiu, then in his late 30s, on the moviemaking map. Lazarescu was my first time watching a Romanian film and although it was tough going at times, it was a mostly positive experience.
The film has many terrific supporting characters who drift in and out depending on where Mr. Lazarescu is (at home, at different hospitals, seeing different doctors). Dana Dogaru (on the right, top photo) and Doru Ana make a good impression as neighbors who reluctantly help Lazarescu when he falls ill, slowly revealing their concern when it becomes apparent that he is in need of professional medical assistance. Mihai Bratila (on the left, bottom photo), for example, is very funny as a sardonic CT technician who gives Lazarescu the cranial and hepatic scans that he needs. Later in the film, Mimi Branescu is memorable as Dr. Mirica, a man more interested in whether or not he can charge his cell phone and who refuses to operate on Lazarescu when the tired, addled patient refuses to sign the surgical disclaimer about possible paralysis.
This is probably my favorite line in the film; patients in the nearby hallway are not welcome in this sick bay. Liver specialist Dr. Ardelean (Florin Zamfirescu) has the bedside manner of a cactus, besides looking like a surly Abraham Lincoln. Instead of acting kindly towards Mr. Lazarescu, he berates him for having the scent of booze on his breath and blames the patient for causing his own malady, purposely smacking the scar of an old ulcer surgery. The film is unrelenting in its process of breaking down Lazarescu’s bodily and mental faculties, stripping away his dignity with each futile visit to an ER or irritated groan from a medical assistant about him soiling himself, but it maintains a grim sense of humor. Puiu’s shaky handheld camera, operated by Andrei Butica, physicalizes a shaking of the head at the terrible state of medical practice in Romania.
Throughout the film the anchor is the sympathetic paramedic, Mioara, played by Luminita Gheorghiu (right), who dutifully lugs Mr. Lazarescu around in her ambulance all through the night to many different hospitals and endures all the nasty things said to her by degree-bearing doctors and nurses who sneer at her attempts to help diagnose Lazarescu’s illnesses. Gheorghiu has appeared in many of the most notable Romanian films of the past decade, including Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Beyond the Hills (2012) and a reprisal of the Mioara character in Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2010), in addition to starring in the well-regarded Romanian drama Child’s Pose (directed by Calin Peter Netzer) last year. Gheorghiu also appeared in Puiu’s first feature, Stuff and Dough (2001), as well as in roles in two French-made films by the Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, Code Unknown (2000) and Time of the Wolf (2003). Gheorghiu’s performance in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was noted internationally; she won the Best Supporting Actress Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Best Actress Awards from the Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film (in Belgium) and the Transilvania International Film Festival (a Romanian event).
Gheorghiu appears about thirty minutes into the film (which is two and a half hours in total) and she sticks with Fiscuteanu nearly to the story’s end. Gheorghiu gives my favorite performance in the film, a quietly effective study of a hard-working woman whose caring shines through even in an unfeeling work atmosphere. For her the film is absolutely worth watching; even though the running time can be a bit of a drag, the narrative picks up speed once she shows up.