Sunday, July 30, 2006

Review - The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu)

“We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.” - Orson Welles.

Mr Dante Lazarescu (Ioan Fiscuteanu) is a grumpy old Romanian who lives alone in his shabby flat in the centre of Bucharest. His daughter and sister have both moved away, his wife passed on a few years ago; and while Mr Lazarescu has a few cats to keep him company, they seem to spend their entire lives snoozing in every room, occasionally managing to rouse themselves for a snack. Mr Lazarescu is a month shy of his 63rd birthday, and his days consist of him sipping gloomily from whatever alcoholic beverages he can get his hands on. Mr Lazarescu does not have long to live.

One of the miraculous things about cinema is its ability to make us care deeply about a fictional character in such a short space of time. It’s a wonderful feat which too few filmmakers can achieve, but when a director can successfully create a person as vivid, as memorable, as real as Mr Lazarescu, the results can be devastating. At the start of The Death of Mr Lazarescu, we have no idea who this man is, and we might not care either. He’s not a particularly likeable man; he’s grouchy, dirty and a burden on his family and neighbours. But two and a half hours later, as Mr Lazarescu slowly slips away from this world, we have become so entwined with his fate that the sight of his demise is heartbreaking.
The Death of Mr Lazarescu is the second feature film from 29 year-old Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu, and it’s one of the most impressive and shattering works I’ve seen from a young director in some time. With incredible subtlety and patience, Puiu crafts a horribly authentic portrait of a lone man’s final hours of life; and in doing so he also delivers a hellish vision of a health system on the brink of collapse, and a sad study of society’s indifference to their fellow man.

When we first meet Mr Lazarescu, he is alone in his flat complaining of a persistent headache and nagging stomach pains. Believing his pain to be a reoccurrence of an old ulcer, he calls for an ambulance and waits. Later on he calls again, and waits. Frustrated by the lack of response from the emergency services, Mr Lazarescu wanders across the hall to see if his neighbours Sandu and Michaela (Doru Ana and Dana Dogaru) can spare a painkiller. They take him back to his flat and try to make him comfortable, but their domestic squabbling can’t be much comfort to the ailing patient. Eventually, the ambulance arrives, and a female paramedic named Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) decides Mr Lazarescu’s condition is more serious than he thinks, and he must be hospitalised. Mr Lazarescu is loaded into the ambulance, and his dark odyssey begins; with the kind-hearted Mioara his only companion on the final trip he’ll ever make.

And so begins Mr Lazarescu’s long dark night of the soul. As Mioara and her driver Leo (Gabriel Spahiu) drive their patient around the city, they find themselves turned away by a series of overworked and understaffed hospitals; all of whom are suffering the impact of a massive traffic accident which has occurred earlier that evening. Nevertheless, Mioara will not give up on her patient, and she continues to try and squeeze Mr Lazarescu into any hospital she can, receiving a bewildering array of alternative diagnoses, and she often finds herself being admonished by a number of doctors for taking up their valuable time when they believe the patient’s heavy drinking is clearly the root of all his problems.

I get the feeling the name Dante Lazarescu is meant to ring a bell. The first name references the endless circles of hell Mr Lazarescu finds himself embroiled in; but unlike the character whom his second name resembles, there will be no resurrection for this poor man. There’s a grim sense of inevitability about The Death of Mr Lazarescu, with things only getting bleaker by the minute, but Puiu is smart enough to leaven the overwhelming sense of despair with frequent flashes of black and absurd humour. For a young filmmaker, he handles the fluctuating tone with incredible adroitness, allowing us a brief chuckle at one of the film’s comedic moments before again reminding us of Mr Lazarescu’s pain as he takes another step towards the grave. Puiu’s slightly detached filmmaking style helps him achieve this effect; as he shoots in simple medium shots throughout, using only natural light (a repeatedly failing light bulb produces one of the film’s funnier scenes) and no music. He simply allows life and death to play out across the screen.

At the centre of The Death of Mr Lazarescu are a pair of tour de force performances from Ioan Fiscuteanu and Luminita Gheorghiu as Lazarescu and Mioara. Fiscuteanu dominates the screen, giving an astonishingly believable performance as the titular character. He starts the film as a crotchety old guy who moans and gripes about everything, and by the end of the film he is simply a shell of a man. Fiscuteanu seems to fall apart before our very eyes, and you can almost feel his life slipping through his fingers. Alongside him, Gheorghiu is a model of staunch compassion as Mioara; her astonishingly selfless devotion to this stranger’s welfare is incredibly uplifting against the sea of apathy she encounters. In fact, all of the performances in this remarkable picture feel completely authentic and natural. From the two leads to the supporting actors to the various doctors, nurses and patients whom they encounter - nobody seems to be acting.

If Puiu makes an error in his handling of this material, it’s in the way he divides up the film’s running time. The opening hour, in which Mr Lazarescu waits to be taken away by the ambulance, unfolds in something close to real time; and the long night which follows is crammed into the rest of the film’s two and a half hour span. This ratio leaves the film feeling a little overlong and unbalanced, and makes the second half of the picture appear a little rushed as Lazarescu and Mioara conduct their whirlwind tour of the city’s medical facilities. But it’s a small quibble in an otherwise supremely well-handled film.

You may be sitting here, reading this review, and wondering why on earth you should subject yourself to this two and a half hour film about a man’s death? Well, the only reason I can offer is because Puiu really makes you care about Mr Lazarescu. During the film’s early stages I certainly didn’t fancy spending any time at all in this miserable old character’s company; but the film involves us so fully in the mundane details of his life and death, they make the latter stages unbearable to watch. I was furious as Mr Lazarescu was turned away by patronising doctors; I felt embarrassed for him as he began to lose control of his faculties, talking in gibberish and soiling himself; I felt a deep sorrow as the hour of his death finally approached.
The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a quite extraordinary piece of work, unlike anything else you’re likely to see in the cinema. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, and it will be too dark and emotional an journey for some, but I found it to be an incredibly powerful and involving experience. Puiu wisely avoids showing us the actual moment of Mr Lazarescu’s passing, allowing him to perhaps maintain some vestige of his dignity even as he lies naked and alone on a hospital trolley; but there’s little doubt that his life will not extend far beyond the closing credits. With absolute authenticity and harrowing honesty, The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a painful reminder that the only certainty in life, is death.