I'm sure there are people out there that have been given the runaround by doctors and hospitals. Bounced around different departments, filling out endless paperwork, prescriptions you can't read, insurance snafus, and the endless, mind-numbing waiting. It could be worse though. You could be Mr. Lazarescu, the unfortunate subject of Romania's official selection for the Academy Award's Best Foreign Language category and darling of the international film festival circuit. As you can tell by the title, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" isn't going to end with sunshine, rainbows, and puppy dogs.
Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is a 63-year old man living in a meager apartment in Bucharest with only his cats to keep him company. His only family is a sister he doesn't see much and a daughter living in Toronto, who won't talk to him anymore. Mr. Lazarescu had ulcer surgery fourteen years ago, but that doesn't stop him from hitting the bottle quite often. Recently, he has been suffering from a painful headache, a fact he explains several times while trying to call an ambulance. He'd have an easier time navigating the nine levels of Hell, much like his Italian namesake.
While waiting for the medics to arrive, Lazarescu asks his neighbors, Sandu (Doru Ana) and Miki (Dana Dogaru), for some pain medication. Soon, his stomach begins hurting and he vomits blood at one point. The neighbors help Lazarescu onto the couch while chastising his slovenly lifestyle. It's nearly thirty-five minutes into the movie when the ambulance finally arrives and Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) knocks on the door. She examines Lazarescu and determines it might be colon cancer, then takes a smoke break in his bathroom. After asking if someone can accompany them to the hospital, Miki replies that Lazarescu is rather "mean" and would prefer not to go. Her husband seems a little open to the idea to which Miki says, "Thanks for leaving me alone on a Saturday night."
Mioara loads Lazarescu up and heads to the emergency room. In an unfortunate coincidence, a grisly bus accident has spread the city's hospitals thin and a sick, old man just isn't much of a priority. The doctor is angry that Lazarescu was brought there, angry that he drinks too much, and tells Mioara to take him somewhere else. Not a second after they arrive at the next hospital, that a medic tells them to leave. After a big of cajoling, they admit Lazarescu and get him tested. He needs immediate surgery for a clot in his brain, but their surgeons are busy with the accident victims. A third hospital yields the most uncooperative staff of all.
Mioara explains Lazarescu's condition and urgency for surgery. The doctor simply blows her off. Who is this lowly nurse to tell me how to do my job? When a neurosurgeon enters the room, he's more concerned with finding a battery for his cell phone. By this point, Lazarescu's condition has deteriorated and the poor man can barely string together a coherent thought. That doesn't stop the doctors from asking him to sign a release form so they can operate. Obviously, he no longer has the capacity and Mioara is bluntly dismissed.
By the time they reach the fourth and last hospital, morning is about to break and Mioara is dead tired. So are the staff. The doctors and nurses walk around like zombies. They realize the severity of Lazarescu's condition, but aren't running down the hallways as if they were on "ER." Sadder still, the surgeons can fix his head, but his liver is the real problem and there's nothing that can done. The film ends as Lazarescu lies naked and alone in a pre-op room, awaiting the operation.
I found it odd that "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" is being advertised as "The Most Acclaimed Comedy of the Year" when I didn't find it very funny at all. Maybe something was lost in the translation? I could see why it might be considered a dark comedy and I do have a twisted sense of humor, but I wasn't exactly chuckling at Lazarescu's state of affairs. This is no comedy of errors. Not to say "Lazarescu" is a terrible film, it's quite engrossing. There is a certain outrage when arrogance and bureaucracy stand in the way of Lazarescu's treatment. Even more shocking is the film was based on a true story when a man was rejected by six hospitals until the paramedics left him to die on the street.
While Lazarescu is the main character, he slowly starts taking a backseat to the film's other inhabitants. He's practically an inanimate prop by the end. The other characters seem more involved with their own lives and gossip than with Lazarescu's well-being. The final doctor's diagnosis of Lazarescu's terminal liver condition is delivered not as an important breakthrough, but as a throw-away line. A completely off-hand remark.
"Lazarescu" is only director Cristi Puiu's second feature-length film, but he's wise enough to keep the camera from becoming too obtrusive. The film is shot in handheld and Puiu stays away from close-ups, preferring mainly medium shots and long takes. He simply lets the story unfold and allows us to bare witness. At two and a half hours, the film takes its time to move along, so you'll have to be patient. It really does feel as if you're stuck in a waiting room with nothing but last year's magazines.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film was shot in digital and as a result the picture is a bit flat and muddled. No fault of the transfer which is fine and blemish-free.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. All are in the original Romanian. This is a dialogue-heavy film and each track sounds fine. There are optional English subtitles which are in an odd font, making it hard to read without a closer look.
The main extra is an interview with Cristi Puiu that runs about 45 minutes. Puiu discusses his own battles with health that lead to the genesis of "Lazarescu." He also talks about financing, shooting the picture, and its impact. Puiu has a rather dry delivery which makes this a bit tedious to listen to.
Perspective on the U.S. Healthcare System by Dr. Fred Berlin features Dr. Berlin discussing the relevance of "Lazarescu", HMOs, health insurance, and the likelihood of something like this occuring in America.
Finally, there is a trailer for "Lazarescu" and other Tartan releases.
It's easy to see why "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" was such a critical hit on the film festival circuit. It's stirring, absorbing, and sure to appear on many top 10 lists. Although, I still don't get how anyone could describe it as hilarious. I do certainly hope doctors, nurses, and med students are watching this film. Mr. Lazarescu's tale is one everybody should hear, you never know if it might happen to you.