Romaniathon Day 2: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu - Can't Stop the Movies
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Romaniathon Day 2: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

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ANDREW LIKEThe myth of Lazarus helps a lot of Christians believe that Jesus had dominion over life and death.  It also affirmed his humanistic tendencies as we are shown that even beggars can hope to gain the grace of God through faith in Jesus’ miracles.  This idea is taken to ironic extremes in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the first in a six part film cycle by Romanian director Cristi Puiu.  Here is a pitch dark “comedy” attacking the current health care system of Romania, and on that note it deserves a medal.

Like the other film I’ve seen of the Romanian New Wave, Lazarescu is incredibly scarce in character and plotting.  We enter the story exactly when the complications occur.  Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is relaxing at home with his cats when he begins to vomit uncontrollably.  Seeking help, he tries to contact his sister and daughter, then attempts to rouse some sympathy from his neighbors.  Then he starts vomiting blood, and his nurse Mariana (Monica Barledanu), brings him to hospital after hospital to try and find someone who will treat him.

The story isn’t about these stops so much as why so many stops were necessary.  Romanian conditions have descended to the point where no one is really interested in helping Mr. Lazarescu at all.  His neighbors laugh off his pains as problems from drinking alcohol and the doctors he encounters are some of the most vile people in the medical profession.

Not a single one of them is actually interested in curing Mr. Lazarescu of this condition.  Puiu shows four different doctors that concoct various excuses for not treating him as a mirror to the Lazarus 4 day resurrection.  Each stop worsens his health, and the only person that ever bothers to try and comfort his pain is his nurse.  But she’s just doing her job, and the others are interested in posturing.

It’s clear that Puiu does not have any respect for the medical professionals of Romania.  The first doctor calls Lazarescu filth and sends him off for a CAT scan.  The next doctor is more interested in him as a puzzle, and ignores all of the information that Mariana tries to give about his condition.  The third is the worst as she and the surgeon speak in medical jargon that has nothing to do with his condition as a way of showing their superiority over the nurse.  It’s only the fourth doctor, beaten down after multiple surgeries, that decides to help Lazarescu.

Puiu wants to show us how badly the over bureaucratization of the health care system affects those it’s supposed to help.  They are given the power to heal and instead all parade about like they are God’s messengers and the plebeian idiots below them know nothing of their own health.  It borders on parody at times, and while the story is based on a similar death that occurred in Romania, their portrayal is just a bit too sadistic.

But is that entirely their fault?  The film seems to suggest that they are partly to blame, but that all are working with the materials they have.  Puiu inserts a running motif of the cheapness that has inflicted their entire society.  Lights turn off after a certain amount of time, space and supplies are limited everywhere and in some cases reused.  All the characters know the name’s of the medicines that they are given without really knowing what they do.  These are all sheep in desperate need of some shepherding.

The style is even more documentary-esque than 4 Month, but to nauseating effect.  The camera is, once again, hand held but is moved around so much it’s difficult to get a fix on the actors onscreen.  At some points it becomes maddeningly nauseous and a bit obnoxious.  Documentary-esque has not, and will never, equate to shaking a camera to show “realism”.  I think that the drab apartments and terrible hospital conditions, as well as the naturalistic performances of the actors, conveyed that all very nicely.  No need to multiply the audiences nausea when the settings will do that for you.

The shots favor long, unbroken takes of the action as Mr. Lazarescu dresses and then slowly gets sick.  Each stop is accompanied by a single shot of all the action.  This should have drawn me into Lazarescu’s condition more but because of the photography I just kept noticing how long the takes were going.  This isn’t to say that the shots should have been broken up, but that the hand-held shaky cam did more to break up the story than just create sickness in the viewers.

How this was billed as a comedy I don’t know.  It’s a cynical drama that contains no real chuckles, and the only portions of it that you might find funny stem from their absurd treatment of Lazarescu.  As a stab against the health care system it’s superb, but as a film it could have used a defter hand behind the camera.  The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is still worth the trip, just make sure that you’re not watching it with anyone who has motion sickness.

Tomorrow I’ll be tackling 12:08 East of Bucharest, also labeled a “comedy”.

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The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

Directed by Cristi Puiu.
Written by Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu.
Starring Ion Fiscuteanu and Monica Barledanu.

Posted by Andrew

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