Dante Lazarescu is an extravagantly symbolic moniker for the unlikely hero of Cristi Puiu’s black comedy of Romanian manners and morals, who sits amid the cramped squalor of his Bucharest apartment, chatting to his cats and quarreling with relatives on the phone while trying in vain to get outside help for a rapidly worsening headache that he self-medicates with an unhelpful brew of booze and aspirin. Grizzled and befuddled in a wool cap and a grimy striped jersey stretched tight over a beer belly scarred from ulcer surgery, Mr. Lazarescu, who’s played with glum stoicism by veteran Romanian actor Ion Fiscuteanu, wouldn’t look out of place at a Simpson family gathering. But the dark farce that holds him in its grip for a risky two and a half hours is best seen as a sly anti-ER infused with implacable existential clarity that will send shivers up your spine. Mortality, it transpires, is the least of the problems faced by this aptly named victim of an inferno of institutional confusion, incompetence and flagrant indifference. There’s nothing trendy or chic about the hand-held camera that clings to the increasingly addled former engineer as he’s dragged from one chaotic emergency room to the next by a persevering paramedic (a very good Luminita Gheorghiu) whose penchant for off-the-cuff diagnoses gets her on the wrong side of her snotty superiors.
Unlike the zippy American medical dramas it apes, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is paid out with the deliberate slowness of a dray horse straining up a mountain path. With every painstaking turn of the screw that seals Lazarescu’s sorry fate, Puiu flirts with tedium, but tedium is the point of this hyperrealist tale, paced in what feels like real time. The first in Puiu’s projected series of six tales from the Bucharest suburbs (Kieslowski, anyone?), Mr. Lazarescu strips away the MTV theatrics of ER (apparently very popular with Romanians), exposing the durable series for what it is — a garden-variety doctor show gussied up in a hectic style that cloaks the usual infantile pop dreams of a medical profession that lives to serve. A self-described hypochondriac who spent two years in and out of hospitals trying to persuade doctors he was dying, Puiu knows his milieu inside-out and exposes it in excruciating detail. He makes anxious hypochondriacs of us all, upping the ante until we start to feel as ill and helpless as the patient himself, at the mercy of doctors puffed up with protocol, self-importance — and, in at least one case, sheer laziness — as they toss off wildly contradictory diagnoses and blithely pass the buck, repeatedly lambasting their luckless (though hardly unprotesting) patient for bringing his troubles on himself.
Puiu cites Eric Rohmer and Jim Jarmusch as influences, but more than anything, one sees Flaubert in the productive tension he creates between the prosaic and the dramatic, between savage satirical brio and humane mercy. An eleventh-hour call for a Dr. Angel only underscores the fact that there are no saviors in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. But neither are there any truly cruel people, from the overextended interns to the neighbors who try to help Mr. L. while keeping a more interested eye on their jam-making, to the lone protector whose dogged efforts to get him the treatment he needs come to a jarring halt, suggesting even in her an ambiguity of motive. On one level the film addresses itself to a Romania that has never fully recovered from the passive inertia bred into every citizen of a dictatorship, though American moviegoers who think this appalling situation is site-specific might want to spend a few hours in the emergency room of one of our county hospitals. If The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is about the institutional heedlessness that allows individuals to die without dignity, it?also gazes, giving no quarter, on the bone-deep, universal loneliness of death. The lucky among us may go out with someone to hold their hands, but one way or another, we all end up alone on that cold slab.
THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU | Directed by CRISTI PUIU | Written by CRISTI PUIU and RAZVAN RADULESCU | Released by Tartan Films | At Music Hall