Spoiler Director’s Virtuoso Work
|Starring:||Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu|
Woe be onto the writer who reveals the end of a film, “spoiler” being just a mild epithet for the miscreant. But what of a director who gives away the story in the title? And, what, indeed, of a film-maker who creates two and a half hours of suspense over a story that’s fully contained in the title?
Romanian-born, Swiss-educated Cristi Puiu, 41, is the extraordinary director responsible for “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” which is about – yes, the night-long journey in Bucharest of a sick, elderly man from hospital to hospital, until…
“Extraordinary” is used here in both meanings of the word: highly unusual and exceptional. Both adjectives also apply to Ion Fiscuteanu, the actor playing Dante Lazarescu, an Everyman going through the medical Inferno of mostly uncaring, incompetent, and some downright mean doctors and nurses.
“Going” is not right: Lazarescu is being driven to and fro by a tired and frustrated ambulance crew, wanting nothing but to get rid of their troublesome cargo. The paramedic (Luminita Gheorghiu) becomes the other principal character, the one with life in her, an utterly real person, whose grudging humanity may or may not win over the lack of caring by just about everybody else.
If you’re still reading at this point, let me share a confidence: based on the foregoing, I would stay away from this film as far as possible. Obviously there is a “but” coming – actually just a plea to believe my experience: with this unappetizing, no, disturbing setup, “Lazarescu” is impossible to stop watching, it gets you where you live, and you’ll carry memories of its characters with you for a long time. This testimonal is from someone not particularly fond of “gritty, hard-to-take, über-realistic” films; “Lazarescu” transcends labels and expectations. It is a remarkable film, not to be missed… even if you want to.
In agreement with that verdict: the Cannes Film Festival’s “Un Certain Regard” Award, a recognition that has gone to “interesting” but not particularly important films. This one is different, it is important, it will be remembered longer than such winners in the same category as “La Meglio Gioventu,” “Sud Sanaeha” or “Amour d’Enfance” – fine works as those are.
To be sure, “Lazarescu” has a Romanian-specific setting (of present day, but looking mid-20th century), without the obvious superiority of West European and U.S. medical technology and “bedside manners.” Still, it should be quite a shock to viewers addicted to “ER,” “House,” “Gray’s Anatomy,” etc. Those dramas (so to speak) are using medical settings, but only to follow bizarre relationships of unlikely characters, who happen to wear scrubs (when not taking them off). This one is about what may happen to you, the patient, on a bad day, however many miles from the wards Ceausescu built.
“Lazarescu” is in the same class with the marvelous Canadian film, “The Barbarian Invasions,” making death and dying a work of meaningful – if hard-to-take – “entertainment.” A big difference: “Invasions” had a kind of catharsis, “Lazarescu” doesn’t, hence 3 1/2 stars here, while I would have gladly given 5 stars to “Invasions” even in a four-star world.