If there's a tougher sell than a Romanian movie by a hitherto unknown director, it's a Romanian movie by an unknown director that takes two-and-a-half hours to tell the tale of a 62-year-old pensioner's final trip to the hospital. Does it help to add that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (which opens Friday at the Parkway Theatre) was the great discovery of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival? Or that, in several ways, it's the most remarkable new movie to open this season?
The second feature by 39-year-old ex-painter Cristi Puiu is an ode to mortality, albeit not without a certain grim humor. (Call it deadpan.) Dante Lazarescu, a retired engineer, living alone with his cats and the bottle, wakes with an unfamiliar headache and a bad stomach and, after a day of futile self-medication, calls the local equivalent of 911. Time passes; the sound of the TV news mixes with the reverberating boombox upstairs. Lazarescu consults the couple living across the hall. "An ambulance on Saturday—do you think they will bother?" the husband wonders. It's fun to talk symptoms; hanging out in the hallway where the light flickers on and off, they discuss various remedies. The neighbors are not uninterested in the old man's case but totally self-absorbed. When he vomits a bit of blood, he's offered a plate of homemade moussaka.
After 45 minutes (film time), the ambulance arrives, and from the limbo of his squalid flat, our Dante enters the first circle of hell. For the remainder of the movie, he will be transported from hospital to hospital, to be variously diagnosed, ignored, browbeaten, humiliated, and finally processed by a harried succession of brilliantly acted doctors and nurses. "Why did they bring him here?" the first of these medical professionals demands, even going so far as to order Lazarescu off the gurney. (He promptly falls.) It's a running joke that everyone immediately assumes the patient is simply drunk. Maybe so, but even drunks can have symptoms. Indeed, before long, Lazarescu does begin to babble incoherently, alone amid the hubbub.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is highly scripted but shot like a documentary. As filmmaking, it's a tour de force, with Puiu successfully simulating—or, rather, orchestrating—the institutional texture of a Frederick Wiseman vérité. The ensemble is constantly talking; when not squeezed into an impossibly tight corner, the camera is in near-continual motion. Puiu claims his inspiration was ER: "When you watch the American TV series, there's movement in every direction, the choreography of the characters is amazing.... In my country, doctors and everyone else live in slow motion, as if they were on Valium and still had 500 years to live." Of course, ER manages to successfully resolve three or four cases each week, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, well....
Among other things, the movie's staged hyper-reality offers a stunning dialectic between drama and artifice—where did Puiu find these actors? Ion Fiscuteanu in particular demonstrates an astonishing absence of vanity in the title role. Puiu's movie also oscillates between naturalism and allegory. The endlessly patient paramedic who initially fetched Lazarescu from his flat is obliged to wait with him in various emergency rooms and then escort her charge to additional hospitals until he is finally admitted. She would be his Virgil except that the movie already has a character named Virgil who is never actually seen. In any case, the paramedic becomes Lazarescu's surrogate in that the hospital workers tend to see his case as her problem: "Doctor, can't we help her?" a colleague pleads by way of asking him to admit Lazarescu for an emergency operation.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is nothing if not visceral. All the talk about smells makes one grateful that the movie's verisimilitude doesn't extend to aroma-rama. We are spared the issue of pain as well—at least Lazarescu isn't complaining about it. In the most profound sense, his death is our spectacle. Life is for the living; however large the crowd or busy the ward, the dead and the dying are on their own.