Monday, May 17, 2010

The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005). Cristi Puiu

Let's get something immediately out of the way. The Death of Mister Lazarescu is not a comedy. It's not "black Romanian comedy" or satire, it isn't a spoof or a "hospicom," or any hybrid of the comedy genre. There was no intended emphasis on humor (for evidence, please see the director's interview in the DVD extras). Those reading comedy into it, "black" or otherwise, apparently come to the film with such a fixed and deep-rooted world view that they can't imagine post-communist rubble or the lack of compassion therein.

There are moments of absurdity. The same absurdity I saw in so many instances traveling in Russia, Estonia, Poland and Albania. The kind of absurdity where you wonder how those in control come into that power without the ability to think for themselves. It's a kind of Reductio ad absurdum which hangs over post-communist mindsets in want of a governing power to wisely -- or otherwise -- instruct them.

Absurdity in and of itself does not automatically equate comedy. I do not and cannot understand how one makes that jump, and I certainly don't understand the willingness of the distributors in the poster above to promote the film as such.

Glad we got that out of the way.

So what is The Death of Mister Lazarescu, if it's not, as its promoters claim, 2005's "Most acclaimed comedy of the year?"

It's about the value and dignity of an old man's life simply as a human being. Lazarescu has made a lifetime of wrong choices, the greatest of which is the alcohol he's shot down his throat for years. The story is also about his good and caring neighbors in a wrong and twisted system -- those who care to help him, and later, those who can't be bothered.

The film is comprised mostly as a series of set pieces over one long night, which, unfortunately for Lazarescu, is the night of his rapid decline. He is suffering, with stomach problems and headaches. He is throwing up blood and falling asleep drunk. He is dying, and the events of this night will show his last.

As he rapidly loses control of his faculties, dying slowly in front of many different people, we find that he's closest to the people he's been in closest proximity to for years -- his neighbors and the people right across the hall -- and he's only another ER drunk to unsympathetic, power-tripping doctors, and specialists, and their staff.

When you see the film you tend to only remember the last two hours (and it's a long film at 150 minutes, but it flies by when you're in the middle of it). You remember the endless parade of paramedics and receptionists, nurses and medical assistants, doctors, specialists and surgeons. They've all had a long night already. A multiple-car traffic accident has brought in a huge number of victims. By the time Lazarescu shows up, they're already too tired to deal with him, and maybe too tired to care.

After all, they can't always be this calloused -- right?

But when you see it, make sure to pay attention to the tight proximal communion of the neighbors in the first forty minutes. See how they know each other by name, and even their kids' names, and which kid belongs to which neighbor. See how they lend to their neighbors in need, or how they offer food and their help in Lazarescu's hard-fought night. They might be pushy at times, but they're neighbors and they know it, and when push comes to shove they care for one another.

Later, contrast this tight proximal communion with authoritatively distant and dictator-like doctors and staff wrapped in political bureaucracy rather than a commitment to the dedication of care. You'll see that the doctors who have written Lazarescu off are like rich and powerful tyrants passing over the poverty of their people. You'll see a different kind of absurdum adding up. You'll see a new kind of communism, wrapped in the guise of "optimal health care."

It's a one of a kind film, simple as it's been described here but profound in ways that make you think. I couldn't get it out my mind all day after seeing it for the first time last night.

Dressed up very much like the dogme I just reviewed Here, I'll once again call it, "No bells, no whistles," just fantastic, straight-faced (albeit absurdist) reality. In that sense it reminds me of the other films from the Romanian New Wave that I've loved: 12:08 East of Bucharest4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and The Other Irene.

In an age of "right to healthcare" issues and the state of human rights issues across the globe, The Death of Mister Lazarescu remains a perfect tale to probe and ponder, a story we should glean from when we think of our neighbors.

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