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The Death Of Mr Lazarescu
cast: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Gabriel Spahiu, Doru Ana, and Dana Dogaru

director: Cristi Puiu

150 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Set in the suburbs of Bucharest, The Death Of Mr Lazarescu (aka: Moartea domnului Lazarescu) chronicles the final hours in the life of Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu). Once an engineer with a family, Lazarescu now lives alone in a tiny flat with a couple of smelly flea-bitten cats. He wakes up one morning with a splitting headache and begins to drink and pop painkillers but by the evening, he is in such pain that he calls an ambulance. The first hour of the film is played out in real time as Lazarescu tries to borrow some painkillers from a neighbour only to have them lecture him on his drinking and generally boss him around. This cycle repeats itself again and again, as a paramedic turns up and then tries to get him admitted to a local hospital. Each new medical person to look at Lazarescu gives him the same grief about being drunk and then refuses to do anything for him because the hospitals are full. Each move makes Lazarescu weaker and less coherent but right up until the end, he refuses to go quietly.

Shot on shoulder-mounted cameras in a faux-documentary or cinema verite style, The Death of Mr Lazarescu's title makes the ending of its simple and cyclical narrative a foregone conclusion but underneath the gritty realism and the linear storytelling is a deeply symbolic and complex film.

The first aspect of the film that one notices is the satirical take on matters of health. Everyone Lazarescu encounters chides him about his drinking and then tries to boss him around before ultimately abandoning him. From the neighbours who try and force-feed him mousaka to the doctors who talk down to him before shipping him off to the next hospital, Puiu suggests that illness is one of those areas of human existence where suddenly everyone is an expert but for which nobody is willing to take responsibility. While his stinging criticisms of the Romanian healthcare system are slightly watered down by the fact that Lazarescu has chosen to die on the same night as a huge bus crash, the point remains... we humans are not at our best when dealing with the sick.

The only person who stands by Lazarescu through these problems is the paramedic who first encounters him. Her red metallic hair suggest she is in her forties but as the film progresses it turns out that not only is she in her mid-fifties but, just like Lazarescu, she has a child that she is estranged from. She is helping Lazarescu because she can see herself in his position.

Aside from the more substantial ideas, the film also features little jokes like Lazarescu informing the paramedic that he has a perfectly normal diet composed entirely of cold-cuts and cheese... the breakfast of Romanian champions! There is also a moment at the very end where Lazarescu's head is shaved and sterilised with alcohol, the very thing that every single doctor has berated him for using. Even Lazarescu's name carries symbolic weight, nodding not only at The Divine Comedy's author Dante Alighieri and Remus, the co-founder of Rome, but also Lazarus, the man raised from the dead by Jesus.

At two and a half hours long, The Death Of Mr Lazarescu is not a short film and the endless repetition of meeting a new doctor who criticises Lazarescu's drinking only for Lazarescu to fight back before being shipped on to the next hospital doesn't exactly make for thrilling viewing. Indeed, while there is clearly a lot going on in this film it is mostly in the background of what is really quite a dull story about an old lonely man dying. The film's lack of energy is compounded by Puiu's mayfly attention span as he flits from jokes about the Romanian diet to political satire to waxing philosophical about how everyone dies alone. The points he does make are ably communicated but lack any real depth to them, and there are so many ideas floating around in this film that it proves to be a frustrating experience for those attempting to decrypt what is buried in the prima facie simple story.

For all the craft and intelligence its director displays, The Death Of Mr Lazarescu lacks focus and falls into that classic art house trap of making a film that is undeniably clever but nonetheless remarkably dull.

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