One of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2006, director Cristi Puiu’s black comedy of Romanian manners and morals came and went so quickly from local theaters that few had a chance to see it. Now it’s back for a weekend-long return engagement at the American Cinematheque. Dante Lazarescu is the extravagantly symbolic moniker Puiu bestows on the film’s unlikely hero, 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. Played with glum stoicism by veteran Romanian actor Ion Fiscuteanu, Lazarescu 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 turns out, is the least of the problems faced by this aptly named victim of an inferno of institutional confusion, incompetence and flagrant indifference, as he’s dragged from one chaotic emergency room to the next by a persevering paramedic (a very good Luminita Gheorghiu, who won the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actress award for her performance). 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 and self-importance — and, in at least one case, sheer laziness — as they toss off wildly contradictory diagnoses and blithely pass the buck, 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. If The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is about the institutional heedlessness that allows individuals to die without dignity, it also gazes 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. American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre; thru May 13. www.americancinematheque.com.
Tartan Films USA