After feeling poorly for hours, Mr. Lazarescu calls for an ambulance. His stomach hurts, maybe from an ulcer operation 14 years ago. Or maybe it’s his head, which he alternately describes as hurting. It’s Saturday night in Bucharest, and after two phone calls during which he’s asked a lot of confusing questions, help has not yet arrived. He beseeches his apartment neighbors for painkillers, but they treat him quizzically – just as everyone else in Lazerescu’s sad saga. The first thing each one asks is if he’s been drinking, and of course the answer is yes. You see, Lazarescu is an old, decrepit, and smelly widower who lives by himself with his three cats. Even though everybody he encounters is ready to assume that his ailments are a result of his drinking (and therefore his own fault), Lazarescu knows that his pain is not liquor-induced. After a half-hour, the medic Mioara (Gheorghiu) finally appears, but seemingly the more questions she asks the more muddled his medical history becomes. It’s nearly an hour into the movie before Mioara takes Lazarescu in the ambulance to the hospital – which turns out to be the first of four hospitals they will visit before their night’s journey is through. At each location, the patient is treated with disdain and scorn, as he’s variously ignored, diagnosed, chastised, and passed off elsewhere. Mioara, who stays by his side throughout the ordeal, is also treated badly by supercilious doctors and nurses who miss no opportunity to demean her knowledge. In many ways this Romanian film, which won Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes 2005, is very nationally specific. Lazarescu mentions ailments and requests pills in words that aren’t very well-translated, plus we have to hope that the horrific emergency-room conditions shown here are not universal. Even though we like to think otherwise, we know the reality is that American emergency rooms don’t run as seamlessly as the do on TV’s ER.
. Puiu films The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
in extremely long, handheld takes that give the impression of truthful, real-time observation. With a running time of two-and-a-half hours, the death rattle of Mr. Lazarescu (whose full name is the symbolically rich Dante Remus Lazarescu) is painful to endure. The viewer will often feel like leaping into the frame to stage a sudden intervention. As a portrait of a broken medical system, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
is hopelessly depressing. Yet as a story of the callous impersonalization we inflict upon one another, the film is timeless.