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Night on Earth | The Nation

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Night on Earth

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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!

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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How Scarlett Johansson learned to become aloof from her own seductiveness.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is as modest and patient an act of daredevilry as has ever been achieved on film.

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.

This is Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), the film's other central character, who will soon take Lazarescu on a ride that unexpectedly lasts all night--or into eternity, if you prefer. A compact, middle-aged woman, redheaded and down at the mouth, she conforms at first to the film's pattern by ignoring Lazarescu. It's a routine, the practice of which, I believe, is not confined to Bucharest: When a slovenly, reeking old guy complains of vague ills, you excuse yourself as soon as possible. Yet some urging of professional pride--or some remark dropped by Lazarescu, who at this stage remains voluble--prods Mioara awake, to do more than treat Lazarescu symptomatically for alcoholism. She examines him and realizes he needs attention.

For the remaining two hours of the movie, attention is exactly what he won't get.

Between 10 o'clock on Saturday night and dawn on Sunday, Mioara carts her patient to four hospitals, each of which has its own atmosphere, rhythm and manners, and its own way of dismissing Lazarescu. At the trauma center, everyone orbits warily about a tall, rail-like doctor with the beard of Abe Lincoln and the attitude of an aggrieved prophet. He condemns Lazarescu on sight as a worthless drunk and excoriates Mioara as an idiot for having brought him into the emergency room; then, almost as an afterthought, the doctor writes an order for Lazarescu to get a CAT scan, at a different hospital.

On to the brighter, more modern University Hospital, where the usual insults soon give way to collegial interplay and gallows humor, carried out over Lazarescu's supine form. The neurologist, who tramps around in a belted red nightgown, flirts with the ER doctor. The radiologist, biting snappily into his chewing gum, issues a continual stream of grim wisecracks, among which is a fatal judgment on Lazarescu.

At the next stop, a harsh and shadowless hospital for neurosurgery, the doctors are interested only in themselves. Mioara is of insufficient rank to be allowed to speak to them and must be so informed, loudly and repeatedly. As for Lazarescu, he figures to these doctors as a hairy, obese procedural inconvenience, who is therefore to be disposed of procedurally. Just before daybreak, Mioara delivers her charge to the final hospital: an anteroom, you'd think, either to the next life or to nothingness, deserted, echoing, dimly lit, staffed by women doctors who speak in dreamy murmurs.

So The Death of Mr. Lazarescu arrives at last at a place of exhaustion and quiet, where the human animal is revealed in its bare material essence: a place of mystery. Every moment along the way has been vivid and convincing; every interaction, emotionally charged. And the deepest, most sustained of these interactions--the last relationship Lazarescu will ever have--turns out to be with Mioara.

At first, when he is still talking, she lets him converse with her only grudgingly, killing time on the road to the trauma center. She just wants someone to take him off her hands. But the more the doctors push her around, the more she pushes back, claiming this case as her own. The more Lazarescu weakens, losing contact with the world around him, the stronger grows Mioara's emotional bond with him. At the climax, in the neurologists' hospital, she rises to a level of heroic defiance against the doctors and their arrogance--while Lazarescu summons the last strength of his life to make a grand refusal, not only for himself but also, I suspect, for her.

Co-written with Razvan Radulescu, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is the second feature to be directed by the 39-year-old Puiu, and the first in his projected six-film series on aspects of love, inspired by Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales. After winning a prize at the 2005 Cannes Festival (despite a reported defection at the press screening of all but a dozen viewers), The Death of Mr. Lazarescu provided last fall's New York Film Festival with a peak experience and is now opening for a theatrical run at New York's Film Forum, billed as a comedy.

It is funny, sometimes. But what really makes me throw back my head and laugh is not the film itself but the joy of seeing this magnificent picture now playing in a movie house.

* * *

The world's first feminist pro-porn speculative biopic--that's hard to say, with false teeth--The Notorious Bettie Page poses Gretchen Mol fetchingly in a large collection of swimsuits, lingerie, black fetishwear and nothing at all, on the pretext of teasing out some insight into 1950s America and one of its most popular pin-up models. Since I didn't mind seeing Mol tritz around in swimsuits, etc., and since Lily Taylor and Chris Bauer have such fun playing the nice, homey smut dealers who employed Bettie, I've got very little to complain about. Then again: Bettie's character, as confected here, is a deliberately thin and poorly stirred mixture, compounded of one part psychosocial cliché (the abused girl who becomes sexually demonstrative), one part stereotype (the simple Jesus-loving Southerner) and one part surrogate (Mol, playing to the camera to show that Bettie did, too). You might think this slapdash approach to character is sophisticated, in its post-whatever insouciance. I think it's half-assed, three different ways. As for social commentary, the filmmakers seem to have felt they'd done all that was necessary by making the second 1950s-period feature to show a black-and-white David Strathairn orating into a microphone. The film was directed by Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho) from a screenplay she wrote with Guinevere Turner (Go Fish). In the past, these two did substantial work. Now they play, so that audiences may have the double pleasure of enjoying their porn while feeling superior to it.

* * *

David Zeiger's documentary feature Sir! No Sir! might be described as a therapeutic film, since it seeks to cure some small part of America's amnesia. The experience that's been forgotten--repressed, rather--is that of the Vietnam soldiers' antiwar movement, which spread and intensified throughout the 1960s. Zeiger's method for restoring the memory of this movement, appropriately enough, is to assemble an astonishing collage of archival material, then bring it up to date by interviewing many of the protesters and resisters you see in the old footage. I don't have space to give the entire honor roll, but you should know that it encompasses female and male, enlisted troops and officers, black, white and Puerto Rican, in every branch of the military. Perhaps Zeiger incorporates one too many snippets of Jane Fonda; and maybe, in his enthusiasm for the GI movement, he ultimately overstates its impact, when he gives the impression that a full-scale mutiny was brewing by the early 1970s. (I recall encountering plenty of veterans who hated what they'd been through but also hated the Vietnamese and the antiwar movement.) But enough quibbles. This would have been an important film just by virtue of existing. The way Zeiger has made Sir! No Sir!, it's outstanding. Sir! No Sir! has just begun a theatrical run at New York's IFC Center and will open in Los Angeles on May 5 at Laemmle's Monica 4.

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