The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

7 November 2005
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005) OWE, 1 November 20:30

The plot is very simple. Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is sixty-three years old; he lives alone in a squalid apartment with three cats. His wife died ten years earlier, his daughter lives abroad and remaining relatives and neighbours are judgemental of his drinking. One evening he complains of aches in his head and stomach. His complaints are met with very limited sympathy, but eventually an ambulance is called, which takes him from one hospital to another where he (and often his paramedic) are patronised and browbeaten by doctors and told to go elsewhere. His grip on the world slowly loosens, his ailments are gradually recognised as serious and eventually he is taken in for surgery.

Shot in almost-real time (the story takes place over six or seven hours; the film 153 minutes) with the camera close in at eye-level, we follow Mr. Lazarescu through his final hours, sitting with him in the ambulance and waiting by his stretcher as busy hospital staff rush past down corridors or stand by and gossip. Somehow the pace of the film is perfectly pitched to keep us fully engaged through this long, hard, frustrating night despite the giveaway title.

Throughout his journey, fighting his corner, is Mioara (brilliantly played by Luminta Gheorghiu), the paramedic. She does not judge him and does her stoic best to get him the treatment he needs, but if she is his guardian angel she comes in the most prosaic of forms. This is a very tired angel who is just doing her job, for very little in the way of money or respect. There is no sentimentality here and no special bond forms between paramedic and patient. Mioara will soon forget he ever existed, unless his case stands out as an example of the arrogance of doctors or the inefficiency of the healthcare system. But this is not a film about guardian angels or healthcare, it simply draws our attention to a frightening lack of humanity in the modern world, a world where each night in thousands of hospitals people are dying lonely, undignified deaths. In a nice touch, characters are given names like Lazarus, Dante, Virgil and Angel, contrasting the stark reality of this unceremonious end and underlining the meaningless of death in today’s soulless world. Not the easiest film to watch but impressively powerful, it’s impact will stay with you for a long time.

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