Night on Earth
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.
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.