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By KJ Doughton | April 29, 2006

Mr. Lazarescu is a sixtysomething retired engineer who lives alone with three mangy cats in a cramped Bucharest apartment. He has not been well for the past few days, with pains originating from the base of an ulcer surgery he had 14 years before and spreading up into his head. On a Saturday night, he finds himself vomiting when he tries to take an aspirin. He decides to call an ambulance, which may be the worst thing he could have done.

Thus launches Cristi Puiu’s disturbing and devastating production “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” This Romanian export is a damning indictment not only of that nation’s healthcare system, but also of human vanity and arrogance in the face of suffering. Of course, one does not need to look to Romanian movies to see how poorly people treat each other (news footage from the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome after Hurricane Katrina proves the point well). Yet Puiu’s film dares to take this serious flaw in the human condition into raw cinematic territory, forcing the viewer to share the growing pain which the ailing title character feels.

The ambulance takes a half-hour to arrive, and its absence is presented in real-time. While Mr. Lazarescu goes to a neighboring couple for help, he only brings their endless bickering and foolishness into his life. The old man vomits blood and has a diarrhea attack. Weakened by his illness, he falls into his bathtub. When the ambulance finally arrives, the EMT/nurse is indifferent to the point of cruelty. She (along with his neighbors) would rather dismiss him as an old drunk and comment on his poor housecleaning and absent daughter (who emigrated to Toronto years earlier).

Eventually, Mr. Lazarescu is taken to a hospital. Alas, that night coincides with a gruesome bus crash and the first hospital is packed with patients. He is refused admission and is taken to another, which also has no room for him but agrees to run some tests that pinpoint his pains. His health deteriorates rapidly throughout the night – he loses the ability to stand, walk, control his bladder and to answer questions coherently. A third hospital will accept him, but balks at performing an operation since he is incapable of signing a pre-surgery disclaimer agreement. A fourth hospital finally accepts him for surgery: nearly eight hours after he first called the ambulance. By that time, he has lost consciousness before he is ready to be shaved for a 4:00am surgery.

“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” can be seen as a dark comedy, but the comedy is one rooted in cruelty. When the patient tells a surgeon his head hurts, the surgeon gives the patient a pat on the head and exclaims: “Good, it means you have one!” The patient states he is thirsty, which reminds the EMT that she needs to take her own medication – she takes sips from bottled water and ignores the source of the aqua-reminder. Throughout the night, people play turf games regarding who is in charge and who should be following orders. At one point, the EMT is harshly told to “go away” by the hospital orderlies even though she has instructions to deliver the patient to that location. This is laced with lengthy periods of idle chatter and gossip. All the while, Mr. Lazarescu slowly dies and his fraying health brings nary a crumb of compassion.

This is not, by any means, an easy film to watch. The handheld cinematography accentuates the horrendous circumstances a bit too strongly (I found myself getting nauseous from the shaky camerawork), and the 154-minute running time does not exactly fly by. The miserable treatment which Mr. Lazarescu receives and endless humiliations he endures (with insults to his character, intellect, family life and even his cats) becomes too much of a bad thing – one wishes there was a way to cut the film down somewhat.

Yet it is impossible to deny that this is a strong, brutal and deeply powerful film. And Ion Fiscuteanu, in the title role, gives an astonishing performance as a once-proud man who is condemned to a premature demise by both his own body and the bodies who surround him. His plight is truly heartbreaking, and as the film progresses it is easy to forget he is giving a performance – his suffering and melancholy is so overpowering that the film feels like a documentary.

Do not, under any circumstance, approach this film lightly. Prepare to be depressed, agitated and shocked. And prepare to see a brilliant work of cinematic art.

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