The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

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The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

(Above: Monica Barladeanu as Mariana in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu)

Director: Cristi Puiu
Writers: Cristi Puiu, Razvan Radulescu
Cinematography: Andrei Butica, Oleg Mutu
Starring: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu
Studio info: Tartan USA, 150 mins.

Real-time drama exposes medical bureaucracies

You’d think a film about an ailing man being shuttled from one emergency room to another—a film called The Death of anybody—would be a real downer,

but Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu uses repetition so cleverly you can’t help laughing at what gradually becomes a grim comedy. A poor old guy like Lazarescu, who everyone suspects has been drinking, can barely get the time of day—despite his worsening condition—from a medical system built like a pyramid: EMTs answer to nurses who answer to residents who answer to generalists who answer to specialists. The patient? He’s at the bottom, except when it’s convenient to hoist him to the top to unstick the wheels of bureaucracy.

Progressing in near real-time and shot with a hand-held camera, the movie feels like a grungier version of ER. But beneath the casual appearance is a well of complexity. If your memory of Dante’s Inferno has, like mine, faded considerably since high school, the references to circles of hell may slip by unnoticed, and even the title’s Biblical allusion only dawned on me afterward. Like the Dardenne brothers’ films, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu seems effortlessly observed, even improvised, but it’s actually a wonder of choreography, rhythm and social commentary. Some viewers are bound to walk away scratching their heads, but those who join its groove will find one of the real surprises of the year.