Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2006)

No movie with a title like that is going to be considered fun-time filmmaking, but it's still amazing how grim this film gets. It can be seen as a spiritual cousin to Arthur Hiller's caustic The Hospital, but where that film is a crazed scream of outrage (literally, in the famed monlogue where George C. Scott hurls invectives out a window), this is a heavy and resigned sigh, looking around disgusted yet also well aware and bitterly accepting of the entrenched diseases of the status quo as here to stay. ("Look around, familiarize yourself, because you'll be here one day", the film seems to say.) It starts with the familiar (a man at home in his squalid apartment, among his cats and his bottle of booze, with a headache and a stomachache) and gradually pushes the situation further -- first, the neighbors come over, then the paramedics, then the cats run away, then they leave the hospital, then they get to the first hospital and things truly start to come apart. Mr. Lazarescu's mystery condition (which slowly gets defined throughout the film's first half) has been aggravated by self-neglect, but it's a combination of bureaucratic callousness and plain ol' bad luck (a bus crash waylays a number of facilities that could help Lazarescu) that leads to the demise promised in the title. Rather than using his camera like a blunt tool, director Cristi Puiu keeps attempting to stave off judgementalism with his matter-of-fact direction. He's spot-on at all times, catching small exchanges and sidelong glances as well as structurally important stuff, so that the film feels like a documentary rather than a neorealist feature -- chaos caught in amber. It's a shame, then, that Puiu the observational director had to be semi-sabotaged by Puiu the finger-wagging writer. This film's scope is enormous, thus so should be its pallette. Too often, though, Puiu goes for the easy satirical score (too many scenes of doctors being judgemental, criticizing Lazarescu for his drinking, contradicting other doctors, etc.). This tendency leads to the film's latter stages feeling repetitive, with the nadir being the encounter with the haughty overnight staff at the third hospital -- here, the maddening bureacracy of the Romanian health care system becomes so nightmarish as to become a cartoon, which nullifies some of the impact of the film as a whole. All this chaos has to end at some point, though, and the film's last ten minutes are graceful, poetic and sad all in the same breath. It's an epic and ultimately wearying film, and it contains a near-perfect lead performance from Ion Fiscuteanu, who plays his character's gradual descent into incoherence with extraordinary modulation. It's an imperfect film, but you may want to take a look at it anyway.

Grade: B-


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