The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Dante Remus (Ion Fiscuteanu, "The Oak") is a retiree who lives alone in a cramped Bucharest apartment with his three cats. He admits to drinking too much, but really hasn't had too much on the fourth day of a headache so worrisome he calls an ambulance. After waiting forever he asks for help from his neighbors and eventually convinces Miki he is suffering from more than a hangover. A third call from her brings an ambulance and Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu, "The Time of the Wolf"), the EMT who will accompany him through the hell that is the Romanian health care system and to "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu."

Laura's Review: A+

This 2005 Cannes Camera D’Or winner, cowritten (with Razvan Radulescu ) by director Cristi Puiu, is a masterpiece of black comedy and humanity, a film whose 150 minute running time flies by, a movie that is utterly compelling despite its foregone conclusion. Ion Fiscuteanu, a type of Romanian Ernest Borgnine, gives a masterful performance as a marginal old man who ultimately breaks your heart. Puiu's film spends almost an hour in Lazarescu's apartment building, observing his life without providing much history. We learn that he has a sister in Toronto (everyone has family in places other than Romania) and that he loves his cats (had Lazarescu trained them, he may have been Umberto D's seedy cousin). The bored dispatcher he calls is just the first to accuse his boozing as the root of his problems - it becomes a blackly funny repetition with every new character he meets and Lazarescu meets plenty. With Mioara as his angel of death and ambulance driver Leo (Gabriel Spahiu, "High Tension") his Phlegyas, Lazarescu must compete with a bus disaster that has flooded area hospitals, and endure indifference, condescension, revulsion and judgmental harangues. As the evening progresses in what feels like, but is not, real time, Lazarescu slowly loses all shreds of dignity and signs of comprehension until, ultimately, his upcoming passing seems a blessing in disguise. At his side, Mioara must also face indignity, treated as a second class citizen by doctors overly impressed with their credentials (one, C. Everett Koop lookalike Florin Zamfirescu as Dr. Ardelean, dresses her down for hazarding an opinion, implies Lazarescu beat his family and calls him a pig!). Ironies pile up until they begin to slip and slide. As Lazarescu begs for water, the otherwise caring Mioara swallows a pill from Leo's sports bottle - then hands it back over to the front seat. When a delirious Lazarescu is refused life-saving surgery (he's finally diagnosed with a subdural hematoma) because he cannot sign the authorization form, the doctor suggests Mioara drive him around until he becomes comatose, relieving him of legal burden. The director has achieved stunningly naturalistic performances from his large cast, with each supporting player making an indelible impression, from Doru Ana ("The Lark") and Dana Dogaru as neighbors Sandu and Miki and the aforementioned Zamfirescu, stunning in his cruelty, to the eerie Zen-like calm of Alina Berzunteanu's Dr. Zamfir, the last diagnosing doctor. Puiu is playful with his symbolism, as evidenced by his titular character's triple-loaded name, but his really astounding achievement is how he transforms commonplace scenes with shimmering alternate meaning. Lazarescu's immersion in a cat scan machine becomes a journey toward his tunnel of light, his pre-surgery prep the ritual cleansing of a dead body. Puiu has envisioned this film as the first in a series of six - cause for celebration. If there is a better film than "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" this year, it will be a miraculous one for filmgoers.

Robin's Review: B+