The Death of Mister Lazarescu

A gem from Romania

By Brooks Robards - January 11, 2007

"The Death of Mister Lazarescu," playing Saturday, Jan. 13, at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven, is a not-to-be-missed gem about the approach of the Grim Reaper into the life of a 62-year-old Bucharest widower. Sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society, it won numerous awards in 2005 including one at Cannes and from the Los Angeles Film Critics. Like Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illyich," this movie will slip you slowly into its grip, then send you on a roller coaster ride that ends with its insights about what to expect from dying in today's world.

Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), a man who like many of the characters carries a distinguished name, is an intellectual. Not that you would guess it if you weren't told. This retired engineer lives alone with his three beloved cats in Romania's capital city. Known to Americans as an obscure nation in southeastern Europe known for its gymnasts and its composer George Enescu, Romania has the seventh largest population in the European Union. You will hear echoes of Italian in the Romanian dialogue onscreen.

The Death of Mister Lazarescu

Director Cristi Puiu, who also co-wrote the screenplay for "The Death of Mister Lazarescu," brings his hand-held camera in close to observe the minutiae of this lonely man's life in intimate, banal detail. The old guy doesn't bathe much. His dirty apartment smells of cats. Even though he is helping his sister Eva pay her bills, she squabbles on the phone with him, and his daughter long ago married and left for Canada. Dante Remus drinks a lot of Mastropol, a high-octane swill flavored with caramel and vanilla extract. He doesn't feel too good; his head hurts and so does his stomach.

Initially the viewer is drawn in by the care and authenticity with which Puiu appears to replicate Romanian life. There are the apartment building neighbors Sandu and Miki Sterian who dislike Lazarescu's cats and lecture him for drinking too much; the hall lights that switch off in mid-conversation; the background snatches of commentary from Dante Remus's perpetually droning TV set. In one of the movie's more gruesomely comic scenes, Miki analyzes the vomit that has fallen on top of Dante Remus's slippers, comparing it to her husband's vomit after an episode of Mallory-Weiss, an illness caused by esophageal tears associated with alcohol abuse.

As the details begin to accumulate, the roller coaster ride begins. The Sterians are not bad people; they are simply busy living their own lives. When Lazarescu has no luck in rousing an ambulance, they succeed in persuading paramedics to take the gently irascible old man to the hospital. They call his sister and promise to look after his cats.

Once Dante Remus arrives at his first hospital - he will be shuttled by van around four in all - he rapidly progresses through the circles of purgatory and hell. In the modern world, that means a medical system -regardless of whether it's in Romania or the U.S. - that ignores or tries to palliate the angst of dying through tests and drugs and passing the buck.

The old man's guide through this chamber of horrors is a paramedic, Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiou) who stays by his side during Dante Remus's ordeal and escalating degradation. With her help, the viewer gets a bracing dose of hospital politics. She is repeatedly abused and insulted by doctors and nurses more concerned about their status than with the deteriorating condition of the patient she is patiently shepherding through the bureaucracy. Mioara is hardly a saint, but she knows she's at the bottom of the pecking order and how the game is played.

The director's style stays squarely within the school of pared-down realism. It has been called documentary-like by critics who liken Puiu to Frederick Wiseman. Much of the movie's power comes from its pace, a relaxed mix of the mundane and the stately. Patients mill about waiting to seen. An irascible doctor yells at Dante Remus for drinking even though he has had surgery for an ulcer. Nurses ending their shift chat about the bus accident that has packed all the hospitals that night.

Puiu says one of his models for "The Death of Mister Lazarescu" was the U.S. TV drama, "E.R.," but life in Bucharest's hospitals proceeds without the heroics and bedlam of the popular TV series, even though a man is dying.

While the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" liked to trumpet its Homeric allusions, Puiu does not belabor references in "The Death of Mister Lazarescu" to "The Divine Comedy." He simply puts them in front of the viewers to appreciate or ignore.

Unlike Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, whose agony was internal and essentially spiritual, Dante Remus suffers physically -appropriate for the cinematic art, but a monumental irony in an age of so-called medical miracles. He does not seem to move from hell through purgatory into paradise, but the reverse, as he undergoes increasing physical degradation by the system intended to "help" him. The question "The Death of Mister Lazaresciu" ultimately asks is a chilling one for this secular age: what hope does Dr. Anghel, who is scheduled to perform surgery on the movie's hero, hold out?

According to its director, "The Death of Mister Lazaresciu" is the first in what will become a series of movies called "Six Stories from the Bucharest Suburbs of Bucharest." It will be interesting to see what this gifted director comes up with next.

"The Death of Mister Lazarescu," Saturday, Jan. 13, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $6 or $4 for society members. Doors open at 7 pm.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.