It would be astonishingly difficult to convince a viewer to watch director Christi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu if they weren’t already predisposed to adore Puiu’s strange, sardonic, drunken but deeply compassionate 150-minute account of exactly what its title suggests. The plain-spoken brutality of the film’s title is not an ironic or even a metaphysical signpost for the symbolic scholar. It is not simply an imaginative foothold for the audience to understand that the film is really using its narrative to plumb some epochal commentary on life in modern-day Romania, to expose a “death” that is abstract or societal in nature, as though the world’s compassion is withering away. The title is not merely an intimation or a whispered poeticism, a literary flick of the pen meant draw us into the film’s thematic caverns.
No, while Puiu’s film does double as a dryly funny screed against the Romanian health-care system and implicitly a commentary on the death of a humanistic society, the “death” in the film is also exactly what it says on the tin: a cold and literal death, a 150-minute epitaph to a life lived by the bottle, the final 150 minutes (or so) in the prolonged passing of Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu). In this case, Puiu (who also writes with Luminita Radulescu) does not debase his subject by rotting away his specificity and individuality by ordaining him as a representation for all of crumbling modernity, turning him into a symbol or a metaphor. His death is not an assassination that will topple a nation’s political infrastructure, or a massacre of scores, or a demise of a noble figure who represents the extinction of life itself. Puiu has no time for – let alone any interest in – statements beyond the specific, and although the film does at least apply for a satire of the Romanian healthcare industry, the real tale is its cranky but pensive look into the extreme deterioration of one man whose sense of self is being ripped away by the minute.
Calling it a comedy, which is how The Death of Mr. Lazarescu marketed itself, is both a disgrace to the film and a heroic statement to the tonal variance that can be encompassed in such a broad genre. Mr. Lazarescu is so bleak that tragicomic doesn’t even apply here, in what might be better described as a tone poem about demise. Even the faux-allegorical quality of the main character’s name – Dante – is a ruse, implying a descent into a grandiose or Boschian hell while the film gives us a hell of only the most pitilessly mundane variety. Double for the character’s last name, essentially Lazarus, which loads the film up with a perfect metaphor that it thoroughly vandalizes and intentionally overlooks. This isn’t really even a story of death or rebirth but of stasis and the slow crawl into eternal nothingness.
Virgil, a doctor in this story, doesn’t save Dante, doesn’t guide him, doesn’t do anything for him except stave off death to allow the titular character to calcify in nothingness for a little while longer. If anything, Death of Mr. Lazarescu is the anti-Alighieri. It may be a comedy – in the classical sense of observing one figure collapsing beneath an absurdist system, not in that it provokes laughter – but it sure is not Divine. The religious allegory we might expect is dryly and diabolically destroyed before our eyes, diffused into a system that allows for nothing either heroic or classically grandiose.
In lieu of such a heroic narrative, what are we actually watching? Marathon-length takes, exercises in reconnecting cinema to the passage of time, removing the audience from a narratively tendentious structure where each scene is meaningful only as a presage of the future. Death promises that no scene will meaningfully “grow” into the next scene or trace a tapestry of events toward final conclusion; the scenes are only themselves, not stepping stones for their successors.
Most of the film consists of observing an ambulance attendant named Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), who suspects Mr. Lazarescu has colon cancer due to his decades of drinking, struggle to find a hospital that will accept him. But in lieu of forward momentum, Mr. Lazarescu is a narrative of circular cynicism and eventlessness, and each successive hospital’s refusal to take-in the title character is not a melodrama of reflection or an opportunity to reconsider the meaning of the film but one more pitiless fact that adds up to, well, essentially nothing. Each time Mr. Lazarescu visits a hospital, it plays out not as a logical continuum of the last one but as a repetition or a continual replaying of it. Rather than progressing through increasingly baroque or terrifying layers of hell, deepening and descending further and thus allowing for a perversely negative kind of progress, Puiu’s film considers Mr. Lazarescu’s end as a perennial and continual detour.
And while the camera is watching, it resonates a quiet intensity, hinting at deep reservoirs of anger and sadness as the camera destabilizes from placid composure to something that borders on agitation. It’s as though the camera – which initiates a queasy head-shaking movement eventually, after waiting through the long takes for any catharsis, good or bad – is losing its sanity and its hope as the takes continue on. There’s no avarice beyond that in the camera’s eye, no attempt to incorporate the world, no greed for meaning. By the end, it mostly seems like it wants to get away, to cleanse itself, just to escape.
The camera too, analogous to any of us, is not immune to the disinterest that infects every person in the film, all of the doctors and nurses that look the other way or, frankly, don’t even bother to turn their heads when they shoo Lazarescu away. The camera is entirely ineffectual if it has any hope of heroically saving Lazarescu. All it can do is essay the world as charred existence, mal humor, and a personal collapse that nonetheless keeps circling the drain.
The only hope the film proffers, frankly, is the rise of the New Romanian Cinema, perhaps the most assiduously thoughtful and humanistic cinematic movement to emerge in the last decade or so. The fate of people like Dante Lazarescu cling to these filmmakers like thorns. They’re women and men and men that just won’t die, but, in this society, they just can’t live either. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, charged with undertows of anxiety and abjection, suggests that there is nothing remotely heroic about its title character holding on for one minute longer. This is not a personal fight, a display of willful agency, for continual existence in a world. It’s not an allegory for holding on in spite of mounting odds. Mr. Lazarescu does not represent anything; the film doesn’t allow him that kind of totemic greatness. But he does, at least, reflect one thing: a cosmic imbalance, or a cosmic joke, that just happens to be playing out in this one man.