Friday, May 05, 2006

Moartea domnului Lazarescu / (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) - Movie Review

Moartea domnului Lazarescu / (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) 2005

Bună Ziua! What if we told you that one of the best films of the year was a two plus hour long meditation on the final hours of a lonely sixty three year old Romanian widower? Wait! Where are you going? Settle down. And pay attention.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” has been labeled many things since its debut in its native Romania in 2005. At the 2005 Cannes Film Festival in received the “Prix Un Certain Regard” top prize, which is French for “Not the Golden Palm, But We Loved Your Work, Better Luck Next Time”. It swept the awards at the Transilvania International Film Festival. Pause. Crickets. Thud. It has picked up a few prizes here and there in the last two years since its initial release in its homeland and its slow trickle across the pond courtesy of the U.S. distributors. Seriously kids, in this day of cell phones, internet and immediate communication why does it take so bloody long for some well received foreign language flicks to arrive!

We were not exactly sure what to make of this movie as it began its leisurely examination into the seemingly pathetic life of a lonely old codger living in a tiny, filthy apartment in Bucharest with his three cats and his stash of homemade moonshine. It didn’t help matters that the film begins with a hand held camera marathon that is either meant to echo Mr. Lazarescu’s attacks of nausea or incite the audience to riot. We were prepared to hate this movie. And then, a most curious and wondrous thing happened. Against our protestations of “Enough with the jiggling camera, you fuckers!”, we realized that an hour had seemingly breezed by as we watched Mr. Lazarescu go through his evening routine of feeding his cats, enjoying a quick cocktail, downing some medicine to ease his mounting nausea and finally succumb to a series of pains that forces him to ask his neighbors for help.

What the hell was happening? Yes, the film had a gritty spare realistic quality to it. No, the camera whizzing by at dizzying angles didn’t help. And yes, the casting seemed to be spot on . . . but how were all these disparate and seemingly uncinematic elements coming together so beautifully that we slowly found ourselves riveting to the dreary domestic drama? Well, certainly the casting helped. Ion Fiscuteanu as one Dante Remus Lazarescu appeared to be plucked from the streets of Bucharest, plotzed into a pair of worn out pants, ratty sweater and unkempt appearance – and thrust in front of the dodgy camera lens.

The neighbors as played by Doru Ana and Dana Dogaru were an Archie and Edith Bunker of the Iron Curtain from the looks of things. And then another member of this doughy troupe of actors appeared. One Luminita Gheorghiu as the ambulance attendee, Mioara Avram. A middle aged matron type, who retained a look of a woman who must have quite the looker in her day – or hooker, one can never tell with these Eastern Bloc gals. She arrives on the scene after a lengthy opening sequence wherein we watch Mr. Lazarescu break down physically and mentally over the series of pains, headaches and bouts of vomiting that have necessitated dialing for medical assistance.

As Mioara begins to examine him, she realizes that this is not just a case of a lonely old man taking too many nips of moonshine there might actually be something seriously wrong with him. Pausing long enough to inhale a quick smoke while Mr. L gathers his pj’s and leaves instructions with his neighbors to take care of his beloved cats, Mioara ushers him into the cold evening air and the waiting ambulance.

What happens over the course of the next hour and a half will happily surprise any lover of fine moviemaking. We follow Mr. L through a horrible series of doctors, nurses and medical attendants whose preoccupations with more urgent matters – Mr. L has unfortunately chosen the wrong night to get sick, for there has been a multi car pile up on the highway and casualties are pouring into the various area hospitals – comprise the bulk of the narrative, such as it is.

What is truly unexpected in this engrossing flick is the steady guiding hand of Puiu as he allows the drama to unfold. He has managed to capture the traumatic and painfully ridiculous plight of anyone who has ever entered a busy hospital / doctor’s office / emergency room only to encounter a series of inept, indifferent, angry medical staff who are more preoccupied with red tape and paperwork than the possible life threatening illness. In short: every man, woman and child on the planet.

And “Everyman” does come to mind. For as that seminal piece of drama so notably demonstrated – our sense of misery, pain and abandonment may be the ultimate unifier. While the medical staff at each successive hospital attempts to help this poor old man in their own manner, we are guided throughout the ordeal by the wondrously honest portrayal by Luminita Gheorghiu. As the EMS attendee who is left with the unseemly duty of cleaning up after the now incontinent and unresponsive Mr. Lazarescu, she delivers an astonishingly real performance that anchors the various vignettes. Here is a woman with no particular emotional connection to this abandoned old man, who takes his plight on as her responsibility. It is not an act of sympathy, or hubris. She is simply doing her duty. What makes the film so ultimately moving in its cool, removed simplicity is that her gentle acts of humanity in another wise uncaring world do not ring false.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” has been labeled a “Comedy” by some marketing geniuses in the vain attempt to gather interest in what is admittedly a hard sell. While its viewpoint is clearly askew, it does not pander to the audience or its subject matter by making cheap jokes at the lead characters expense. (Take note of the ridiculously incongruous poster design revamp that attempts to fool moviegoers into thinking they are attending some big screen version of “Scrubs”! The original design seen above is much closer to the whimsical and poetic nature of the film.) What is comical about the situation is the complete disconnect between the medical staff in the film and their duty to the dying patient. While the various doctors and nurses may not officially be breaking the “never do harm to anyone” creed, they are certainly too overwhelmed by their taxing workload to allow any room for sympathy.

The sad and quite surprisingly fascinating journey of Mr. Dante Remus Lazarescu succeeds as great moviemaking by the honesty, passion and intelligence of its creator, Cristi Puiu. And while this film may not exactly call out to your average moviegoer as a fun night at the movies, it remains a beautifully made film that captures more about the human experience than a hundred empty headed blockbusters combined. And while you think the title may give everything away, it doesn’t. The film ends on a note of poetry that is not only unexpected, but transcendent. So why not do yourselves a favor and experience one of the best films of the year. You’ll be glad we sent you. Noroc Bun! Bless you all!

Directed by Cristi Puiu
Written by Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu

Ion Fiscuteanu as Dante Remus Lazarescu
Luminita Gheorghiu as Mioara Avram
Gabriel Spahiu as Leo
Doru Ana as Sandu Sterian
Dana Dogaru as Miki Sterian
Florin Zamfirescu as Dr. Ardelean
Clara Voda as Dr. Gina Filip
Adrian Titieni as Dr. Dragos Popescu
Mihai Bratila as Dr. Breslasu
Mimi Branescu as Dr. Mirica
Rodica Lazar as Dr. Serban
Alina Berzunteanu as Dr. Zamfir
Mirela Cioaba as Marioara
Forum Boguta as Paramedic
Dragos Bucur as Misu
Monica Barladeanu as Mariana
Alexandru Fifea as Virgil
Bogdan Dumitrache as Doctor Tanar

Cinematography by Andrei Butica (Hand Camera!) and Oleg Mutu
Film Editing by Dana Bunescu
Original Music by Andreea Paduraru
Production Design by Cristina Barbu
Costume Design by Cristina Barbu



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