The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, Romania, 2005) has been attracting praise wherever it is shown. The good news is that here we have a case of genuinely deserved adulation. Directed by Cristi Puiu, whose short film Cigarettes and Coffee won the best short award in Berlin in 2004, it is Puiu's second feature film, the first being Stuff and Dough.
In his new, buzzed-about film, the story follows Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), a 62-year-old retired engineer in Bucharest, a widower who's been living on his own for the past eight years. He has a sister who lives in a nearby town and a daughter who lives in Canada. He shares his house with three cats and the empty bottles of alcoholic beverages he tends to consume in excess.
One day he starts to feel strong head and stomach aches. The ambulance service he calls never comes and after medicating himself he seeks help from his neighbours, a couple called Sandu and Miki Sterian (Doru Ana and Dana Dogaru). When they notice the strong smell of alcohol they give him medicine for the stomach, but when Lazarescu shows signs he's actually getting worse, they decide to appeal to an emergency service.
After 33 minutes shot in real time, the emergency service finally arrives to find the patient in a critical situation. When the paramedic becomes aware of the gravity of the situation (maybe colon cancer?), she decides to take him to hospital and his steep journey up the Romanian public health system calvary starts. For two real-time hours, Lazarescu is shuttled from hospital to hospital in Bucharest, receiving evasive diagnoses and being ignored by a bevy of doctors and nurses. The viewer watches his fast deteriorating health while the driver tries to find someone willing to offer him some help.
The film extrapolates Lazarescu's drama to lay bare the tensions of the society in which it is set: each doctor, paramedic, nurse and patient paraded throughout the narrative are firmly steeped on their individualist stationing, but are part of a drama that is essentially collective. Puiu's realist, documentary style gives the film its power. Sequence shots, fluid and mobile camerawork are redolent of Frederick Wiseman's work (who tackled state institutions in some of his films) and may remind some of Cassavetes and the Dardenne brothers. The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a raw film about indifference, whose inevitable end symbolises the blurring of fiction and reality.
The Death of Mr Lazarescu is out now.