Honey, let’s go see that three-hour Romanian movie, about the sick old man who’s lying on a gurney! Oh, you mean the new Ion Fiscuteanu picture–the one where he spits up, mumbles and falls asleep? Sure, darling, but we’d better buy our tickets online. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is going to sell out!
May it be so–because however drab and draggy it may sound in synopsis, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a great movie.
Granted, it really is a three-hour ride with a dying man, portentously named Dante Remus Lazarescu: a 62-year-old engineer (played by the grizzled and blubbery Fiscuteanu) who is trucked this way and that through the Bucharest night, leaking confused words and bodily wastes at a series of unhelpful hospitals. You might say the film proceeds by subtraction. It progressively takes away Lazarescu’s energy, mobility, command of language, control of bowels, tongue, clothes, hair and autonomy, until the complete man you saw at the beginning–pained and panting but still furnished with a home, habits, neighbors, family and sarcasm–is reduced to a slab of flesh under a sheet.
But The Death of Mr. Lazarescu also proceeds by addition, which perhaps explains one small part of its greatness. While Lazarescu is descending on his nighttime journey toward zero, the film builds up an entire social world around him–one that is harrowing, funny, infuriating, outrageous and sometimes profoundly moving.
The pileup begins in a hideaway typical of an aging widower: dirty dishes clustered next to the sink, towers of old newspapers stacked in the living room, voices yammering incessantly on TV and cats sprawled on every stick of furniture. Lazarescu doesn’t live in this apartment so much as wear it, like his snug knit cap or polo shirt. You can sense the space clinging to him, permeated by his humidity and odor. Except for the cats (which seem to multiply every time the camera turns in a new direction), he is on his own–alone and waiting. Complaining of a persistent headache and vomiting, he has phoned for an ambulance; and while his request is going unanswered, minute after minute, there’s nothing for him to do but pour a drink of some nasty caramel-colored stuff, rub his stomach, call the ambulance service again, take some medicine, grouse to the cats, put on a fresh polo shirt (he’s vomited on the old one) and call his married sister to argue (with a certain eloquence, an intellectual keenness) about money. The light is dull and waxy, even in the kitchen. When Lazarescu settles down for any length of time, halting the hand-held camera in its wanderings, the image trembles slightly, as if palsied.
You and Lazarescu are allowed to steep in this woozy isolation until the director and co-writer, Cristi Puiu, is good and ready to introduce other people–starting with a big, booming neighbor and his pincushion wife. When interrupted by Lazarescu, who has ventured across the landing to ask for help, these two exemplars of the philosophy that “Life goes on!” scarcely bother to listen to the sick man or look closely at him, so intent are they on continuing their chronic warfare over his head–also around him, and in front. While his legs suddenly turn to water and the lights on the landing keep blinking off, the neighbors interrupt their self-absorption only to admonish Lazarescu about his drinking, or to offer a little pork moussaka (just the thing for someone who can’t keep down an aspirin). Monsters of comic invention, these Bickersons would be enough in themselves to kill off poor Lazarescu, except that the paramedic finally enters, with a worried frown at all she sees.