No Romanian film that this writer has seen has been as honest, as gripping, and as well crafted as Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu. It bolsters the credibility of Romanian cinema, which has traditionally lagged behind the rich cinematic products of the former USSR (e.g., Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Kozintsev), of Hungary (e.g., Fabri, Szabo), of Poland (e.g., Kieslowski, Wajda) and even of the former Czechoslovakia (e.g., Forman, Kadar, Trnka). For the Romanian viewer, this movie could touch a raw nerve that relates to the true state of Romanian hospitals, the attitudes of their medical staff and their ability to care for the sick and elderly slice of the Romanian population. It is indeed a societal and psychological study of the varied behaviour patterns of emergency room staff under stress. From this viewer's perspective, the film's tale could easily extrapolate a similar situation anywhere on this planet—in a rich developed country or in a poor developing country. The film transcends man-made boundaries. It is a tale of gradual loss of independence as one’s health deteriorates. It is indeed a degrading experience when one wishes for the proximity of their dear ones.
All of us assume that if we have a medical emergency someone would rush us to an emergency room of a hospital where our ailment would get immediate and due attention. But what if we have that unfortunate requirement shortly after a major accident (or for that matter, a terrorist attack, or a fire, or a building collapse) near the hospital and we reach the hospital emergency room when every worker at the hospital is stretched to the limit. If you subscribe to Murphy’s law that ‘if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong,’ this movie is for you to appreciate and reflect on its amazing contents.
Director Puiu’s film The Death of Mr Lazarescu has won at least 24 awards, including the prestigious Prize of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, the Golden Swan at the Copenhagen Film Festival, and a Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival. Interestingly, this is the first of six films the director intends to make that revolve around Bucharest and its environs, each a treatise on love, this one being a film dealing with love for fellow men. The other five are to be films on (a) love between a man and a woman, (b) love for one’s children, (c) love for success, (d) love between friends, and (e) carnal love. Is this Romania’s answer to the Polish genius Kieslowski’s Dekalog, which had each of its 10 episodes devoted to one of the Ten Commandments? I do hope it is. (His second film Aurora, in this proposed series of six films, has been made in 2010 and screened at the Cannes Film Festival but this writer has yet to view it.)
Puiu and his co-scriptwriter Razvan Radelescu developed a fascinating yet dour character they call Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu. That name is heavy with allusions. Dante, we know, is associated with the famous writer Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who wrote The Divine Comedy describing man’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Remus, we know, is associated with Romulus and Remus, the two mythical shepherds who are credited to have built the city of Rome. Now Remus was killed by Romulus and his henchmen for leaping over a wall built by Romulus, but some writers alternately suggest Remus died from natural causes, and not killed. But eventually Romulus went on to bury Remus with pomp and regret. The name Lazarescu would recall the two distinct Lazaruses mentioned in the Bible associated with the Gospels—one is a Lazarus who is raised from the dead by Jesus and the other is a Lazarus who is poor and sick, and lives off the crumbs of a rich man's table, eventually dying to reach heaven while the rich man goes to hell. Imagine mixing all these details to weave a single character in the film, which interestingly is not about Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu or his death but about his last days on earth. The movie is about how others deal with him and how one person decides to take care of a stranger who needs help. Yet each element of this unusual name is important to appreciate the depth of the film’s script.
Mr Lazarescu of Puiu’s film is an average human being, not very rich, not very poor, living alone in a small apartment with cats as his only company. He is probably living a retired life. His wife is either dead or has left him. His only progeny, a daughter, has married and migrated to another country, Canada. His closest kin is a sister who lives in another town and is an eager recipient of some money he sends from time to time. We learn that he had been operated for an ulcer in his stomach. His young neighbours in the apartment building hate his cats and have very little time for him as they are immersed in their daily chores. Mr Lazarescu’s only “friend,” other than his cats, is his bottle of liquor. Inevitably, when Mr Lazarescu has a severe and persisting headache and is vomiting blood even after taking some pills available in his apartment and his neighbour’s apartment, he is stinking of liquor. However, the interesting script of Puiu and Radelescu adds an interesting detail: Mr Lazarescu, in spite of his pain, loneliness, and his awareness that he needs urgent medical help, worries about feeding his cats and sending money to his sister who desperately needs it. But how do people deal with such an individual in that condition? That is the core structure of Puiu’s cinematic essay, not so much the conditions of emergency rooms in hospitals.
As Mr Lazarescu awaits his ambulance to arrive, his neighbours do provide minimal succour of providing him a pill for headaches and even offers a bite to eat. When the ambulance and its paramedic appears on the scene, the neighbours cry off the responsibility of accompanying Mr Lazarescu to the hospital—their priorities lie elsewhere. It is the paramedic who has never met Mr Lazarescu before, who realizes he has no one to care for him. It is the paramedic who decides that he needs urgent medical attention (after having made an interesting medical diagnosis through her years of experience rather than medical studies), who takes his papers, and who accompanies the sick man the entire night. But on that fateful night, just before Mr Lazarescu reaches the first hospital, the emergency room has its hands full, dealing with scores of other equally critical patients as a result of a bus accident.
What ensues later are a series of encounters between doctors of all hues and the paramedic accompanying the patient. There are tired doctors, irascible doctors, egoistic doctors, caring, empathetic doctors, doctors sexually attracted to other doctors, doctors with dark humour, doctors who go by the rulebook and not common sense, doctors who use every trick they know to get another doctor to attend on a serious patient, and even brilliant doctors who can diagnose the condition of the patient with alacrity, all quilted and sketched out with remarkable credibility that makes the viewer wonder if the movie has indeed transformed from fiction into a documentary.
A powerful subplot of the film involves the stand-offs between qualified specialist doctors and the less qualified paramedics. It is interesting to note the intolerance of the educated towards well meaning less-educated individuals with lots of experience. Also captured by the lovely script is the intolerance of doctors towards a sick patient smelling of liquor and having a sharp tongue.
Many viewers noting the similarity of the names Lazarus and Lazarescu might expect this movie to be about death or even surviving death. The film is not about either of those scenarios. The film is about how people react to situations where a person is nearing the end of one's life and how we behave towards such individuals in such situations. Lazarescu’s life might have been saved if one of the doctors saw the urgency of his medical condition and did not toss the patient to the next convenient hospital to reduce work load and offload accountability. The film might show the emergency room and the pressures of that environment. But it is actually a film that asks the viewer to look at ourselves and our behaviour towards others. Only one individual, the paramedic goes out of the way to help a stricken stranger, even when she knows from experience it is a no-win situation. Yet, she extends a hand in help to a man without any kin, just as she would care for a family member, asking no reward for doing so.
That brings us back to the name of Dante Remus Lazarescu. Who is the "Lazarus" here? One realizes the parallels in the movie are more related to the Lazarus, the beggar with sores eating off the crumbs of the rich man’s table (read emergency room of hospitals). Who is the "Remus" here? One recalls the fable of the creator of Rome and one might see the parallels with Remus who was killed but officially considered to have died a natural death. Did the lack of love in the emergency rooms kill "Remus" Lazarescu, which would eventually be labelled as natural death. Who is "Dante" here? Lazarescu appears in this film progressing through “Hell” of the Divine Comedy. Comedy, you ask? What can you say of doctors who insist on a signature on a form to absolve the doctors from blame by a dying man, who is not in his senses, before conducting a major operation? The film is supposed to be based on actual events; yet the name of the dying man decided by the filmmakers is not without substance.
This notable Romanian film does not merely rely on the strong script but a bravura acting performance of the entire cast. The flawless performances of each player in the film are astounding. The viewer begins to feel that these are real people--such is the effect of the film. At the end of the film there is silence as the patient is ready for the operation and is left alone. The film does not have to state anything further. What the film had to state has been eloquently said already. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet stated with his powerful final words: “The rest is silence.”
P.S. Two segments of Kieslowski's ten-part Dekalog have been reviewed earlier on this blog. Dekalog part 5 deals with the Commandment "Thou shall not kill" and Dekalog part 7 deals with the Commandment "Thou shalt not steal." The Death of Mr Lazarescu is among the author's top 15 films of the 21st century.