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The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 1 Jan
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
from Film Forum, 01/25/07

Again and again, as film critics announced their top ten lists of movies from 2006, a curious title appeared—The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

It's a film that most American moviegoers haven't even heard about. That's because it comes from Romania, and does not include any movie stars you've seen before. It only made occasional appearances in U.S. arthouse theaters while it was winning awards at international film festivals. But there is good news for adventurous moviegoers—the film is now available on DVD.

It is indeed an award-worthy film, and it marks the emergence of a director that some are already calling a master—Cristi Puiu. Reportedly the first in a six-film series called "Stories From the Suburbs of Bucharest," Lazarescu is a masterpiece of subtlety, a powerful expression of compassion, and a work of art worthy of comparison to masterpieces by Eric Rohmer and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes. It may remind others of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue.

Lazarescu follows the final journey of a hard-drinking, lonely old man named Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu). As the film opens, Lazarescu's health is taking a turn for the worse. He makes urgent phone calls to family members and the hospital, asking for help and an ambulance. Then he visits his neighbors, who respond with a mix of concern and compassion.

When the ambulance finally arrives, it's a few quick tests and then off to the hospital. And then to another hospital. And another. Poor Lazarescu is subjected to a succession of memorably maddening encounters with doctors. As he is wheeled from condescending lectures to spectacular displays of insensitivity and hard-heartedness, he is accompanied by a longsuffering ambulance nurse named Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), who stands beside her patient valiantly until he arrives in the care of people who know what he needs and have the heart to help him.

Sound compelling? Probably not. But the film will slowly take hold of you in the way that some of your worst nightmares take hold. Puiu focuses our attention on a cramped, crowded journey through a maze of professional and personal dysfunction, causing us to ask which is worse—being sick or being treated. But along the way, we catch glimpses of grace and compassion. And we're forced to ask ourselves how many times we've flinched or turned away from someone as needy and unpleasant as Lazarescu.

Along the way, Lazarescu's story is rich with literary allusions. Some viewers may find themselves thinking about The Death of Ivan Ilyich, King Lear, The Divine Comedy, and even certain Bible stories. (Pay attention to the names of the doctors.) Puiu's sophisticated script offers revealing conversations that happen so casually it's easy to miss their dimension and relevance. The extraordinarily talented cast almost convinces us that we're watching a documentary.

It's ironic, really, that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—a story about a lonely and mistreated individual—is being neglected itself. Hopefully its excellence will eventually win it the large audience it deserves, even if that has to happen one viewer at a time on DVD.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Deliberately paced, filmed with an unvarnished look and featuring understated performances, Puiu's perceptive commentary on health care, in charting Lazarescu's plight, poignantly brings attention to how uncaring bureaucracy and societal apathy can depreciate the dignity of a human being."

You'll find the many enthusiastic raves of mainstream critics here.

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