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Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
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#95: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
(Romania, 2005; dir. Cristi Puiu; scr. Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu; cin. Oleg Mutu; with Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Dragos Bucur, Dorian Boguta, Mihai Bratila, Monica Barladeanu, Mimi Branescu, Rodica Lazar)
IMDb // My Page

What is that jaunty, synthesized pop song that plays over the opening credits of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a movie that's about exactly what it says it's about? What do the lyrics mean? If you know, I wish you would tell me, because I love the film, and I assume that it generates one of its infinite glints of mordant intelligence or humorous lament in relation to this ditty: either the song isn't as sprightly as it sounds or the movie isn't as dour as it first appears... which is certainly true, but how much more quickly does a Romanian-speaking audience understand this?

In the meantime, awaiting my full comprehension, I am assuaged by the fact of how brilliantly Lazarescu works as a totally unique comedy, dingy and merry and terrible, about the brute incommunicability of almost everything: the sites of pain, the proper prescriptions, the protocols of boarding an ambulance, how long it takes to send or receive a money order, the arrogant rituals of expressing authority, the relative merits of cats and wives. The beginning of the film is as self-evident as it gets, with old, sour-smelling, liquor-swilling Dante Remus Lazarescu slugging around his untended apartment with its snot-covered lighting and dead-looking cats, ailing from some mystery condition that causes him to expectorate bile or blood, plus whatever he just chugged from the bottle in his pantry. He spews this all over his shirt. He responds, entranced with his own upchuck, with the desperately dignifying word, "Compote." With the absurd deliberateness of the myopically lost, he takes the shirt, no doubt his favorite, into his jaundiced bathroom to try to clean off the gunk. The film refuses to court our affections, though in its profound grasp and dense presentation of this milieu and its rhythms, and the problems of its people, Lazarescu takes us fully into its confidence. Transparent visual style, long takes, an apartment that's the height of geriatric layabout realism: Mr. Lazarescu seems to give itself over so purely, even though what it's giving isn't necessarily anything we want. But nothing is really that simple, in Cristi Puiu's film, or anywhere—but perhaps nowhere are things as unsimple as they are in a post-Communist bureaucracy when you're sick, and neither your testy neighbors nor your offscreen relatives nor the Nine Circles of Health Care Administration have any clear idea what to do with you. The movie will be full forever more of speculative diagnoses, neighborly spats about Distonocalms and drill sets, difficulties about intake procedures and nurse's clipboards, lectures about excess drinking, ambulance small-talk that very occasionally tilts into philosophical reverie, debates about free beds and affordable procedures and quickest rouets from one clinic to the next. Nothing is simple, although the astutely invisible camera-eye, the evocative but grossly quotidian lighting, the indelibly careworn costumes, and the astonishing virtuosity of the ensemble cast (as fully immersed in this story and in their characters as an Ingmar Bergman or a Mike Leigh repertory) keep the emotional and anthropological experience of watching Mr. Lazarescu disarmingly simple. There's nothing "hard" about the movie, except the rigidity of certain medics and the coldness of chauvinist husbands, and the possible tribulations of convincing a friend to watch a 2½-hour document of one doddering alcoholic's final hours. Lazarescu is preoccupied with arguments, impasses, and untranslatables, including the surreal hardships of translating life into death, but it's as instantly and richly engaging as any novel you'd never have read if you knew what it was "about" (Great Expectations? Madame Bovary? Invisible Man?) and it's as convincing a testament as any I've seen to the universality of certain experiences—mortality and bureaucracy principally among them.

The movie is a favorite, and not just an object of devout aesthetic admiration, almost exclusively because of the character who appears 35 minutes in to limn the sallow, sometimes jocular, sometimes disputatious, implicitly dispiriting atmosphere of Puiu's film with a warm beam of human industry, trained on behalf of a stranger in need. You don't immediately recognize Luminita Gheorghiu's emergency medic Mioara as a moral center or a source of inspiration; with her terse manner, her blunt gaze, her discordantly orange sleeveless jacket, her incongruous on-the-job smoking, and her burgundy-dyed hair, she looks more prepped for the part of an unfeeling emissary of the medical institution than for the role of introspective, compassionate audience surrogate that she eventually assumes, on her hunched and tired shoulders. Gheorghiu's Mioara is an even more improbable heroine than Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson, and she's an even fuller creation, mapping an arc from stoicism to dogged but unflashy solicitude that mirrors Marge's different way of confronting the bottomless surprises and deep sorrows of the world. Liking a character is a pretty jejune reason for liking a movie, especially a movie with the formal fortitude and high-wire humor and the deceptively ragged, epic aspirations of this one. But I like Mioara tremendously, and I think about her often, and I love Lazarescu for taking upon itself, amid all of its other spectacularly fulfilled missions, the illumination of a new form of taciturn, street-level, wholly believable kindness: professional but surely personal, created from scratch in every minute detail but endowed with soul, with quiet desperation, with whatever in cinema has ever been or can ever be real.

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