Among Terms of Endearment‘s many tear-jerking moments, the most operatic pits Aurora against hospital nurses. Her daughter Emma is dying of cancer and her painkillers aren’t delivered at the expected hour. Aurora circles the nurses’ station, pounding on the countertop and yelling, “I don’t understand why [my daughter] has to have this pain. All she has to do is hold out until 10, and it’s past 10! Give my daughter the shot!” If Aurora can’t save Emma, she believes she can ease her suffering.
Alas, poor Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), the ailing protagonist of Cristi Puiu’s absurdist film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, has no advocate like Aurora. The 62-year-old widower, stricken with a severe headache and stomach pain, is caught for hours in the bureaucratic limbo of the Romanian hospital system. The film, a potent combination of satire, cautionary tale, and nightmare, offers no theatrical performances or manipulative soundtrack. Instead, it relies on superbly controlled plotting and Fiscuteanu’s spirited, complex performance to convey Lazarescu’s dire situation.
From the start, the audience is confined with the whiskered, barrel-chested Mr. Lazarescu as he awaits medical care in Bucharest. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu frames nearly every scene in long-take medium shots, creating an almost claustrophobic intimacy. The several hospitals’ ghastly bluish-green lighting adds a nauseating pallor to the images, and Lazarescu’s ambulance rides emphasize its failing shock absorbers, every bump in the road exacerbating his symptoms.
Confined to gurneys and beds, Fiscuteanu conveys Lazarescu’s gradual dissolution with subtle eye movements and vocal modulations. Soon the slightest slur in his speech fills us with alarm. He suffers assorted indignities (incontinence, nudity, public rebukes), but maintains a simultaneous vulnerability and feistiness, never pitiful, but wronged by a mix of chance and indifference.
Helplessly we watch Lazarescu’s health deteriorate throughout the night, as doctors listlessly examine his charts, berate him for drinking too much, or ignore him to attend to victims of a catastrophic bus accident. The paramedic (Luminita Gheorghiu) who ushers him from ER to ER suffers from her own gallbladder ailment, and as she gets nothing but grief from the attending physicians, eventually decides she just needs to get back the stretcher she’s been using for Lazarescu.
Even during his decline, he worries about his pets and his plants. As he’s being escorted from his apartment to the ambulance, he pleads with his neighbors (Doru Ana and Dana Dogaru) to look after his cats: “It breaks my heart to leave them all alone.” His struggles deserve witness, so for two-and-a-half hours, we watch, we wait, and we hope that a doctor will accurately diagnose Lazarescu’s complaints and cure him.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru
US theatrical: 26 Apr 2006 (Limited release)
Our investment in the face of others’ indifference or ignorance risks our feeling smugly superior, but we aware of the film’s title and know Lazarescu’s fate while the characters onscreen do not. Puiu grants us this privileged position not to make us feel better about ourselves but rather to guarantee that Lazarescu is taken seriously by someone.
In Now Toronto, Puiu, a self-professed hypochondriac, has disclosed that he once suffered from crippling anxieties about his health, which doctors dismissed. A stark indictment of the health-care industry, the film is also a hypochondriac’s revenge fantasy. Mr. Lazarescu is actually sick, and we are right to worry. (For the hypochondriac, feeling legitimized is almost as important as feeling well: he isn’t as deluded as everyone thinks.) For Puiu’s critique of the system to carry the most weight, Mr. Lazarescu’s prognosis must be dire—and we must be aware of that from the beginning.
The poor widower ends up naked on a hospital table, his head shaved in preparation for upcoming surgery, poised to leave this world much in the same way he entered it. And even though we’ve always known this ending, the movie leaves us with remorse, pondering all the “if onlys.” If only Lazarescu had kept his apartment a little tidier, maybe his judgmental neighbors would have been quicker to escort him to the hospital. If only he hadn’t taken a drink earlier in the day, maybe his symptoms wouldn’t have been dismissed as the result of a hangover. If only there hadn’t been a bus accident the night he fell ill, maybe he would have received care in a timely manner.
Indeed, if only Lazarescu had wandered into a slick American melodrama, maybe he would’ve had an Aurora on his side, someone to make sure he received the relief he needed. In a film like that, he and the audience would have been granted catharsis, rather than the inescapable certainty of death and alienation. But Mr. Lazarescu is far from Hollywood.