Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cristi Puiu, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (2005)

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) is not your typical, glamorized glimpse into the medical world. It is filmed in long takes, each take unfolding in “real time,” with a hand-held camera, yet it is not your typical documentary either, aimed at framing a true story of epic proportion and complete with special narratives, interviews or voiceovers. Puiu’s second feature length film is not a documentary, but a highly stylized and scripted depiction of the death of a 63 year old man. There is nothing unordinary about his illness; he is not a special member of his community; there is no attempt to glamorize any moment. Instead, Puiu works to give us a “slice of life” in his story of Mr. Lazarescu; he presents something deep about the nature of life and death and the stark, fearful, confused moments that every individual faces at one time or another. Giving the film a documentary feel heightens our ability to look at it as a representation of reality, produced not only to comment upon the Romanian health system, but also on how individuals negotiate their lives and deaths, the limitations every person possesses.

As the film opens, we see Mr. Lazarescu in a cluttered apartment littered with cats. He is in some distress, which we learn more about as he calls a hospital to send an ambulance and chats with his sister on the phone about his illness. Mr. Lazarescu is isolated in his everyday existence and we get a feeling of his isolation as he conducts both of these phone calls; we hear only his questions and answers- his repetition of the facts surrounding his illness and justifications for continuing to drink in his current state. His neighbors come over but offer no real attachment to the man as they argue over who will accompany him to the hospital or whether or not it is necessary that anyone attend him. What I found compelling about the interaction of the husband and wife next door was in fact something that had nothing to do with Mr. Lazarescu himself. While the wife, Miki, appears to be doing her best to offer Mr. Lazarescu some healthy assistance – running to fetch medicine, bringing him food to help ease his stomach pains – she is constantly undermined by her husband, who presumably feels as if he has an authority over her as such. What is interesting about this is that it appears to be a natural fact of married life within the particular social environment of the film.

Again and again, power relations and social hierarchy play a prominent role in the action that unfolds. Another example of this hierarchy I speak of comes as the female ambulance attendant, attempting to offer whatever medical summation or description that she can in order to speed up the admitting time of Mr. Lazarescu at each hospital, is constantly ridiculed, though she seems to have more sense and authentic concern for the dying Mr. Lazarescu than any of the doctors. That said, it is in moments such as these that we realize how compelling and realistic the film is; within every social system there are hierarchies and procedures and they often limit the scope of the individual to reach a deeper human understanding of others or feel compassion for those who are misunderstood or ordinary. And yet, even the misunderstood, ordinary, lower-ranked citizens eat, sleep and die like everybody else. This is why The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is powerful: because it reminds all of us about the inevitability of death and the solitude of the human condition which makes it impossible for others to ever really access us. The doctors who have little time to spend or who are quick to judge the moral characters of patients are not evil or even especially careless; they are like all of us – individuals with their own concerns who cannot help but distance themselves from emotional attachments with people who they will eventually be forced to see die.

The film is visceral as well, though we don’t get many shots of graphic content, because we slowly witness Mr. Lazarescu’s decline as if we were sitting in the room with him, knowing that he was about to die. It is a devastating reality of life to confront mortality and Mr. Lazarescu may remind us of any loved one who has suffered a similar fate; in fact, anyone who has suffered a similar fate. Most of all, we know that some day we will suffer a similar fate – death, no matter how it comes to us. We feel sympathy for Mr. Lazarescu because we acknowledge this, while acknowledging the film’s style (probably on a more subconscious level), which forces us to think in terms of reality over the fantasy world often constructed by films. Here there is no particular honor in death or heroism in those who aid it; we simply see what we see.

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