By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The sun is shining on the warm March afternoon when I show up at the offices of Mandragora Films, an unassuming two-story building located in a business-and-residential district near Bucharest’s busy downtown. But inside, filmmaker Cristi Puiu sulks about with a dark cloud over his head. A confessed hypochondriac who has, at various times, misdiagnosed himself with digestive cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease, Puiu is a mere 38 years old, yet he thinks about death and dying with an intensity befitting a man twice his age.
“I once met a woman who was an astrologist, and she told me that I am an old soul in a young body,” says the tall, slender Puiu when we meet — the first of many indications that Puiu’s extraordinary new film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, may be close to autobiography, no matter that its protagonist is a sickly, 60-something widower during what may be his last night here on Earth. Premiering at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, the film seemed a curious object even by film-festival standards: two and a half hours long, from a country better known as a haven for runaway Hollywood productions (including Cold Mountainand untold direct-to-video action cheapies) than for its domestic film output, and sporting a title that effectively nixed any hope of a crafty marketing campaign designed to convince audiences of its date-movie potential.
Yet, between its sparsely attended press preview and its sold-out encore screenings, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu emerged as one of the only true discoveries in a Cannes long on old masters but precariously short on new ones. By the time the festival was over, a jury led by Sidewaysdirector Alexander Payne had awarded it the top prize of the Un Certain Regard sidebar (amid much grumbling that a slot in the main competition was deserved). And since then, the film has screened to great acclaim at the Toronto and New York film festivals, placed near the top of critic polls in Film Commentand Cinema Scopeand been otherwise hailed as a masterpiece — despite the admission, by those doing the hailing, of the difficulty in convincing others of this very fact. All of which, it must be said, has done little to brighten Cristi Puiu’s day.
“After Cannes, I was confused,” he says, eyes downcast, as we sit at a large conference table adorned with trophies representing many of the film’s accolades. “This is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to travel, to go to all these festivals. I just couldn’t move. It’s about depression somehow. It’s a film about an old man who is dying, but it’s not just about an old man; it’s about a human being, who disappears. And afterward, this success — it’s really hard to reconcile these two things. Okay! Now let’s take advantage of this! From a moral point of view, I’m still very confused.”
The old man in question is one Dante Remus Lazarescu, and the film is a record of his epic odyssey through a multitiered kingdom — not the nine circles of hell, mind you, but nearly that many hospitals. It begins when Mr. Lazarescu (played brilliantly by Romanian stage actor Ion Fiscuteanu), who lives alone save for an army of feline companions and who perhaps drinks a bit more than he should, feels unwell and calls for an ambulance, which never comes. And so he calls again, and waits some more, until finally, following a third call from his neighbors, the paramedics arrive. Which is but the start of Mr. Lazarescu’s real troubles. As the night wears on and his condition deteriorates, he journeys far into the purgatory that is the modern health-care system, encountering overcrowded emergency rooms and overly officious physicians and discovering that all patients, regardless of what ails them, are uniformly bandaged up in red tape.
“It was a real story,” Puiu says. “An ambulance tried to admit a patient, and something like six or seven hospitals refused, so finally the ambulance nurse decided to leave the patient in the street and he died there. That’s why it was a scandal, but these things are happening every day without the last part. I thought, Fuck! This could be a very good movie. And then I thought of Philip Glass’ music — you know, very repetitive. Six hospitals! I couldn’t imagine: What kind of reasons did they have for sending them away?”
Then Puiu, who co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Razvan Radulescu, inserted a bit of his own paranoia into the equation. “I wanted him to lose his power of speech, because this was one of my fears, and because I wanted to focus on communication between people,” he continues. “I went to hospitals and I watched people with aphasia and dysarthria, because I wanted to inform myself, and it’s really scary — unbelievably scary. The body is a mystery. We live in a mystery.”
Throughout The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Puiu, who admits to such disparate influences as ER, the “Moral Tales” of Eric Rohmer and the observational documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, strikes a delicate balance between gripping medical thriller and scabrous institutional satire. But for all its bilious critiques of a society insufficiently equipped to care for its own people, the film is ultimately an absurdly funny and unbearably tragic human comedy — maybe thehuman comedy — about the indignity of old age, and how we are so often alone in this life but for the grudging kindness of strangers. And in Lazarescu, there are few strangers kinder than the indefatigable ambulance nurse Mioara, a far cry from her real-life counterpart and as faithful a companion to this Dante as fair Beatrice was to his namesake. In Puiu’s own words, it is “a movie made by a patient,” and yet it is one that neither condones nor condemns, but rather which shows humanity at its best and worst, its most selfish and most charitable, and which strives to understand both extremes. No wonder Puiu, who has announced Lazarescuas the first in a planned series of six films called “Tales From the Bucharest Suburbs,” says he sees the movie as a love story, about man’s love (or lack thereof) for his fellow man.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city