Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

The other night, we saw the Romanian movie The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which was directed by Cristi Puiu and won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes. My wife will report that when we walked out of the theater, I said that I hated it. And it's true: I did say that. But that is not the whole story. In fact, I backed off of that more or less immediately. The reality is that I was so tired when the film began that I strongly wished that we hadn't bought tickets, that I could go home and immediately go to sleep, that it wasn't two-and-a-half hours long, that it wasn't the last night the film would be shown. Once it got going, I quickly realized that this was a movie that required my attention and I was sure that I did not have the requisite attention to give it. I repeatedly closed my eyes, waiting till I heard voices, when I would open them and read the subtitles. An excellent way to approach a visual art, I find. I was exhausted, and the movie felt brutally depressing and claustrophobic, and I wanted to go home. But then something strange happened. With about 15-30 minutes remaining, I realized that I had been watching, relatively alertly, for some time, without closing my eyes, without wanting to slip off into a coma. I had been sucked into the film quite in spite of myself.

In the beginning of the movie, Lazarescu Dante Remus calls an ambulance because he has been suffering from headaches and vomiting, which may or may not be caused by an old ulcer or his excessive drinking. Naturally, the ambulance takes forever to come, and that's just the beginning of the bureaucratic nightmares he must endure on the way to his probable death. He is taken to hospital after hospital. One of the movie's strengths is that, while he and his attending paramedic encounter indifferent or hostile doctors wherever they go, who are actors definitely caught up in a bureaucratic hell and as a result are often quite indifferent to his fate, each hospital and each doctor or nurse is distinctively realized. As tired as I was, I have no trouble bringing to mind several clearly delineated characters.

Lazarescu's full name should no doubt have been a tip off that he was traveling into something like circles of hell, but the brutal realism of the film (not to again mention my exhaustion) somehow enabled me to not attend to such details until afterward. Identifying his predicament as Kafkaesque was trivial enough. When my wife and I discussed the movie we focused on the realism, of course, but for her it also exemplified existentialist ideas: there was no transcendent meaning, no resolution. This is what life is, the film seems to be telling us, and any human connections (and there were some real connections--and disconnections--in the movie) are made by the characters, not determined by any externality. There is the bureaucracy, yes, and there are rules to be followed, but the doctors and nurses pretend to have no control over what they do; they clearly pick and choose which rules to enforce, and how strongly to enforce them, at any given time, and they repeatedly hassle Lazarescu for choosing to drink. I felt that there were a few lines of dialogue here and there that were hamfisted in their attempt to drive home the point about the bureacracy and the conditions of life in Romania, but as a whole the movie managed to avoid heavy-handedness: everyone seemed so natural and unaffected, it was much like watching a transparent documentary. Indeed, it occurs to me that those lines were often undermined by the reality of the scenes in question.

In the end, a good film. I recommend it, but with some caveats. Avoid sleepiness, and expect to encounter some pathetic characters and a painfully realistic, not to say depressing, story. I, for one, am glad that I did not force us to leave the theater and go home.

For more on The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, see this Cinema Scope article, of which the following is a sample:
Lazarescu is only 63, but he is treated as a useless piece of junk. Everything and everyone conspires against him: his bad mood, his drinking habits, the quality of the emergency services, aggravated that night by a horrific bus accident that led to hundreds of victims. But, above all, Mr. Lazarescu’s enemy is authoritarianism, so embodied in Romanian society (and elsewhere), and so easy to adopt as a maxim by the members of the medical profession, leading to the contempt and mistreatment of patients. But the film functions along the lines of a thriller, not only because of the mysteries of medical diagnosis and its procedures based on hints and clues, but also because it’s obstructed by laziness and arrogance. Nobody knows what’s wrong with Mr. Lazarescu, but he slowly and steadily deteriorates until he reaches a state where he can no longer communicate. Ironically enough, everybody puts forward his or her guess before the truth is established, though by that time, maybe it’s no longer important. Puiu’s treatment of the subject is so intelligent that he even builds a suspense that is very difficult to appreciate, although it’s essential for the plot.

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