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 Mountain and 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 Sideways director 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 Comment and Cinema Scope and 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 the human 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 Lazarescu as 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.
“Someone once said that there are filmmakers who are in love with cinema and filmmakers who are in love with life,” says Puiu, “and I am one who is in love with life. I am very much interested in life, more in life than in cinema. I am interested in cinema too, but as a tool of revealing life. During one night in an emergency room, a doctor may be busy with some patients and suddenly there’s another one coming in with a serious heart problem, and then another one’s coming who smells of booze and so the doctor says it’s a problem with his liver. So I tried to avoid being judgmental; it would have been really easy, but it also would have been really stupid. I understand all the attitudes the doctors have in this film, and in real life too.”
Not least, Puiu adds, the ability to make light of so much death and decay. “In a way, I grew up in a hospital, because my mother was a teacher in a school for mentally disabled people and my father was an administrator at a big hospital in Bucharest,” he says. “I met many doctors, and it was really funny listening to them speaking about their patients. These doctors are facing death every day; it’s not an easy job to do. And I can understand why they protect themselves in this way. When we shot the CT-scan sequence in Lazarescu, we were in a working emergency hospital. One day, as we were wrapping, we passed by the morgue, and there were these orderlies who were bringing in a dead woman in a black zipper bag — and they were laughing. They saw us — they knew we were from the film — and they unzipped the bag and started waving the dead woman’s hand, saying ‘Good night! Good night!’ One of the boys had a glass eye. It was like something out of David Lynch.”
And there, but for the grace of ?God .?.?.
“I have a friend who says there’s no hell and there’s no heaven,” says Puiu. “The lights just go down and that’s all. But this scares me more than hell! At least in hell or in paradise you may encounter some of your friends or your enemies and have a chitchat with them. But just emptiness? Nothing? It’s impossible for me to conceive of. I think there is a god, and I would like Him to be like I imagined Him in my childhood. I don’t like abstraction. I’m a very limited person and my imagination stops at a certain point. I cannot imagine God without a face, without a name. God is not everywhere. He is not in everything. He is somewhere, on a cloud, with a long beard and white hair, like Santa Claus. And it has to be like this. There has to be a Santa Claus. And maybe Satan has to look like the one from South Park.”
All reports to the contrary, Cristi Puiu didn’t just materialize out of the blue. Born in Bucharest in 1967, he initially wanted to be a painter and even studied art at Geneva’s Ecole Supérieure d’Arts Visuels, before a chance viewing of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise set him on a different course. “At the moment I discovered Stranger than Paradise, I was painting, and for me the cinema was entertainment and that’s all,” he says. “When I watched this film, I liked very much the quality of the black-and-white and the nothingness contained in the film — the emptiness. And somehow, I recognized the main character — John Lurie’s character — because he was so from the East somehow. I thought Jarmusch was a very clever guy, being American and building up this kind of character. So I started becoming interested in cinema, and then I saw Oliver Stone’s JFK and I said, ‘I can do this.’ Really, that was the feeling I had. ‘I can do this. I can cut like this.’ It seemed so easy to me. I don’t think it’s so easy now.”
Only later, though, did Puiu realize that filmmaking could also satisfy his desire for personal expression. “That was the moment when I discovered Cassavetes,” he continues. “The first time I saw A Woman Under the Influence, I thought, “What a fucking bad film. A stupid film. What the fuck is this?” Because in Jarmusch, there is a kind of structure — a composition, an aestheticism. And in Kurosawa also. This was the cinema, I thought.”
Well, I say, Cassavetes broke all the rules.
“Yes, but I don’t think he wanted to. He was just trying to express something — we don’t really know exactly what. There are lots of clues. He was speaking about love.”
Selected for the 2001 edition of the Directors Fortnight at Cannes, Puiu’s debut feature, Stuff and Dough, is an energetic and amiable coming-of-age story about a directionless young man working as the errand boy for a small-time drug dealer — another road movie of sorts, only with a cargo van in place of an ambulance. Then came Cigarettes and Coffee, a deadpan two-hander in which a son reluctantly agrees to help his recently downsized father get his job back, and winner of the top prize for short films at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival. And if, on the surface, Puiu’s three films appear to have relatively little in common, on closer examination they seem remarkably of a piece in their concerns: children becoming parents; parents becoming like children; filial responsibility at odds with self-interest; and, above all, the gap between two generations that fail to see themselves reflected in one another.
“I think I’m a lousy father, and I don’t think I was a good son,” Puiu says. “I have this problem of responsibility. I try to escape responsibilities, and my refuge, when I am making films, is to think in terms of testimony. I have to testify of my own experience. That’s why everything is related to my experience — the responsibility, the lack of communication, etc. It’s not that I am waiting and recording and analyzing what’s happening around me in order to make a film out of it. It’s just that I’m living with this and then, at a certain moment, I have the idea to make a film about something, and as I start to write about it, I end up in this refuge — my experience, my problems, a mirror of myself. I think that all the characters in the films I’ve made — there aren’t so many — but all the bad characters, if you can call them that, they’re me. I mean, in Cigarettes and Coffee the son is me and the old man is my father mixed with my grandfather.”
Perhaps, I suggest, Puiu is being a tad hard on himself — that surely there is something of him too, of his wizened soul, to be found in his films’ noble old men rallying against time’s onward march, striving to maintain their dignity in an undignified world.
“Well, maybe,” he consents. “Maybe I will become like my father. We cannot escape our destiny. We are part of a family. This is my refuge. Maybe other filmmakers think differently. Maybe their refuge is just to play with things, to invent things, the way a child creates. They enjoy this inventing of things, and it’s very hard to find them, their own selves — their inner, intimate souls — in the story. Which is not my case, because I don’t know how to do this. I’m just doing what I think is important, and the crises that I have are related to this, because I start thinking, “Fuck. This isn’t important. It’s important for me, but that’s all. People won’t care.” But I follow my passions and my passion is to tell stories about my experiences and about the people I love — maybe because I am so much in love with myself.”
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When our interview ends, Puiu invites me to join him at a preview dinner for a restaurant he’s investing in that’s about to open to the public. The food turns out to be excellent. But it’s also here that I see a markedly different side of the filmmaker. Surrounded by friends and with his wife, Anca, at his side, he relaxes, loosens his grip on his neuroses and, when the light catches him just right, even seems downright happy. For a moment, he’s no longer the artist tortured by the sins of his past and the anticipation of his own demise, but rather the loving husband and father of two Lemony Snicket–obsessed daughters, and a passionate film buff as keen to expound on his admiration for the new American cinema of the 1970s as he is to speculate about who might win in a throw-down between two of the most gainfully employed mainstays at Bucharest’s sprawling Castel film studio: Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. He’s even willing to discuss plans for the future that have nothing to do with his own funeral arrangements, among them his hope to transform Mandragora into a production house not just for his own films, but for those of other emerging Romanian directors.
“Our first interest is to sustain and support auteur cinema, because it’s very hard to fight American cinema, which is really almighty,” he says. “Not all American cinema — as I said, my model is Cassavetes, who was American — but entertainment cinema, cinema as a business. It’s very hard to oppose that. My image of auteur cinema is a very clear one — it works after a model that already exists in all the other fields. In the medical field, for example, there are a bunch of people working to find the medicine for a certain disease, and then Bayer or some other huge enterprise comes along to produce it. I think auteur cinema is like this. I don’t think the commercial cinema would survive without it, and I don’t think cinema would survive without the commercial cinema. They’re all interrelated — we can’t cut off one part and throw it away. I like commercial cinema, but I want to see people facing this fact, that cinema will not survive without the authors, without this branch of research and development.”
Puiu’s highest priority, though, is to make a new film himself — one in which he might just lighten up a bit.
“When I start thinking of a new film, usually I begin by thinking in very abstract terms. But very soon after, I start thinking about death, where to put the death. I would like now to make a film not about death, and yet still with death in it. The bright side of death, if you will. I would like to induce a sense of death without showing it. Just to tell a story about, I don’t know, a family around a table eating, that’s all, and yet, at the end of the film, you leave the cinema with this thought — thinking about the ephemera of our lives.”