Director: Cristi Puiu
Starring: Ioan Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu
Death is not a dignified process, but it is particularly merciless in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the Romanian New Wave film about one man's long, final night. A keenly observed character drama from one of the richest film movements of recent memory (other RNW films include 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, Child's Pose, Beyond the Hills and Police, Adjective), a simple description of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu may make it sound insufferably art housey: a 153 minute film during which a man is taken to, and turned away from, multiple hospitals as he slowly dies. This is an accurate description, but doesn't quite capture how compelling the film really is. It's long, yes, but not slow; it's depressing, but it's fascinating as well. It's also one of the most acclaimed films of that last decade.
As the film opens, Mr. Lazarescu (Ioan Fiscuteanu) is already in some distress, suffering from a terrible headache and a stomach ache which has caused him to throw up multiple times. He calls an ambulance, but nothing comes so he goes next door to seek the help of his neighbors, who have no medication that might help and who make a second call for an ambulance after Lazarescu coughs up blood. When the paramedics, which includes nurse Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), arrive they begin to take down Lazarescu's medical history, as well as take note of the fact that he smells like alcohol. While Lazarescu keeps insisting that his present pain has something to do with the ulcer surgery he had a decade previously, Mioara confides to one of the neighbors that she believes he might be suffering from colon cancer. After placing a call to his sister, who lives in a different city, and informing her that his condition may be very serious and that she should come right away, Mioara and her partner take Lazarescu to the hospital so that he can get treatment. As the evening progresses - dragging on longer and longer and becoming more and more dispiriting - Mioara will become Lazarescu's reluctant, but greatest, champion - not that it will do either of them all that much good.
All told, Lazarescu will be taken to four hospitals, examined at each, found to be suffering from a blood clot in his brain that is in need of immediate attention in order to save his life, but turned away from the first three nevertheless. Each hospital is its own particular horror show, as overcrowding due to a bus accident has stretched hospital staffs to the limit, and apathy resulting from exhaustion reigns at one of the hospitals, where the doctors are more engaged in belittling Mioara because it's something that can be done quickly and easily, whereas dealing with Lazarescu is going to require a lot of time and effort. Also, as at least one doctor points out, even if an operation is performed to remove the blood clot, it's only going to save him so that he can die of an incurable liver tumor. As the night wears on, Lazarescu slowly fades away, unable to communicate by the end of the film, which leaves it to Mioara to speak up for him and keep demanding that he get the medical attention he so obviously needs, but keeps being denied.
One of the more interesting things about the film, and the thing that gives it a lot of its power, is the fact that the longer the film goes on, the more Mioara begins to displace Lazarescu as the protagonist. As he becomes increasingly passive, and decreasingly able to advocate for himself (not that anyone is listening to him, anyway, because they all write him off based on the alcohol they can smell on him), Mioara becomes the character driving the narrative forward. The less everyone else cares about what happens to Lazarescu, the more she cares, even in the face of the derision directed at her from the doctors at various hospitals, none of whom want to be told by her how to do their job, even as they consistently refuse to actually do the job. We become very invested in Mioara and her quest and then, near the end when her job is finally done and Lazarescu is admitted to a hospital, she exits the story, leaving us with what remains of Lazarescu as he lives out what we're given to believe will be his final moments. The narrative strategy of the film reminded me a lot of 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days which also takes as its protagonist a figure who should, ostensibly, have a supporting role in the story of someone else but instead has to take the reigns in order to make the story happen. Here, the strategy works to give us a final jolt at the end, pulling the rug out from under the viewer by taking away the character who has become our point of identification. The shock of that helps makes the impact of those final moments all the greater, as Lazarescu finally gets the medical attention he needs but there's an inescapable feeling that it has come far too late.
Director Christi Piui, who co-wrote the screenplay with Razvan Radulescu, films the proceedings in a pseudo-documentary fashion, taking an arm's length view that makes the film more an observer to the action than the guiding force of it, and filming with a handheld camera which gives scenes an intense immediacy. Most importantly, Piui trusts that the situation on screen speaks for itself and so doesn't feel the need to underline or go out of his way to call attention to it, but gives the film the feeling that it's just letting things play out. What is happening on screen is horrifying (though Piui finds ways to bring some very dark comedy into the mix), made even more so by the fact that the story is inspired, in part, by an actual incident (though in real life the patient who ultimately died did not have the benefit of having a Mioara fighting for him). The Death of Mr. Lazarescu may be, for a multitude of reasons, an acquired taste, but it's a great film, one that is perfectly directed and which features a wonderfully understated but powerful performance from Gheorghiu.