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MOVIE REVIEW

A deeply disturbing journey through Bucharest hospitals

How's this for an indignity? His name is Lazarescu, shades away from Lazarus, that old biblical phoenix, yet he does not rise. No, indeed, he just waits. Cristi Puiu's ``The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" is a watchful, winding-down tragedy of a movie that delivers what it promises. As commentary, it's grim. As filmmaking, it's a powerfully disturbing odyssey through the Bucharest health care system.

One evening, Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) phones a hospital from his shabby apartment. He reports that he's been feeling ill (headaches and an upset stomach). He's promised an ambulance, but where is it? In between politely prodding phone calls to the hospital, he talks to his cats, watches a little television (the volume is indecently high), and bugs his married neighbors (Dora Anu and Dana Dogaru) across the hall. They take him in until the ambulance arrives.

The widowed Mr. Lazarescu is not far from his 63 d birthday. But if he wouldn't mind my saying, he doesn't seem a day over 80. As the night continues, the full portrait of his medical history and his terrible health is unveiled. For instance, those horrid-looking bandages around his lower legs are a pitiful attempt to stop his varicose veins from bleeding. They're ulcers that were last operated on 14 years ago.

At about 10 p.m., a paramedic named Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) shows up. Upon entering the old man's apartment, she takes a quick look around and makes a face. ``What a dump," her look says. Initially, she blows him off (he ought to try an antacid) and becomes the third person to tell poor Mr. Lazarescu what will become the film's running joke: He's sick because he drinks. Of course, after Mioara lays into him, she announces that she's headed to the kitchen for a smoke.

From the outset it's difficult to tell whether this is being played for comedy -- it's certainly being played for truth. But Puiu, who wrote the fine script with Razvan Radulescu, has chosen a hands-off documentary approach that leaves interpretation up to us. If this is comedy, it's rarely been blacker. Eventually Mioara takes Mr. Lazarescu down to the ambulance (leaving those cats breaks his heart), where her partner waits. The ensuing journey into darkness is worthy of Kafka and Dante.

As night stretches into the following morning, Mr. Lazarescu and Mioara meet their share of tyrannical doctors, zombified night-shift nurses, and nagging ironies, the most terrible of which is a bus accident that's clogged emergency rooms across the city. Each new hospital presents its own complications. While some of the doctors are not as demeaning as others, the milk of human kindness is pretty curdled, and saints are scarce. Even for Mioara, exasperation and condescension from the medical staff conspire to remind her that this is just a job. All the while, Mr. Lazarescu sits around as people yell at and haggle over him.

Like many great movie performances by the unheralded or unknown, I can't begin to know how Fiscuteanu gave his. Much of what he's required to do involves lying on his back and being pushed around. And it isn't as though Puiu's visual approach to this story is one of close-ups and cutaways. (Those would be too luxurious under these circumstances.) This is a case where Fiscuteanu is called upon simply to be. And what a movingly hapless presence he has, writhing, yowling, sinking further into agony. The performance seems all the braver because the movie doesn't perfume it with any of the grand flourishes that great literature or cheesy moviemaking can provide. There are no flashbacks to the old man's salad days. His daughter and his sister never show. Time creeps cruelly forward.

Puiu has said that Erich Rohmer's Six Moral Tales (1969's ``My Night at Maud's" was the first) inspired him to make his own sextet of films set in and around Bucharest. They're to be love stories. But Puiu is clever. ``Mr. Lazarescu" is the first installment, and the director says it's about the absence of a love for humanity.

Accordingly, this first ``love story" culminates with an outraging bureaucratic scene involving the signing of a form. Then it's off to the picture's unhappy denouement, where as a matter of catharsis, you might crave the volcanic righteousness of Arthur Hiller's satire ``The Hospital" or the silent moralizing in Frederick Wiseman's documentary ``Titicut Follies." They never arrive. In fact, the movie's verisimilitude is what permits it to be so crushing as a feat of art. In this man, we're asked to witness ourselves as we will never be able to: alone and terrifyingly still.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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