The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a disarmingly simple film. In an almost vérité style, Romanian writer-director Cristi Puiu depicts the last night in the life of his titular character, Lazarescu Dante Remus (Ion Fiscuteanu in a hypnotic performance). Mr. Lazarescu is a drinker. His wife is dead, his only child moved away, and he lives alone in Bucharest with his three cats and a ragged Kim Wilde poster. One morning he wakes up with a terrible headache that gets worse as the day passes. He gets sick - from the aspirin, he thinks - and begins to have stomach problems as well. And, of course, he drinks. But not too much. When the pain becomes too great to bear, he calls once, and then again for an ambulance.
His movements clearly slowed by pain, Mr. Lazarescu goes across the hall, ostensibly on a quest for painkillers. What he finds is a pair of temporary, advice-filled caregivers, and a neutral observer whose call might persuade the dispatcher to send an ambulance, even on Saturday night. By the time the ambulance finally arrives, Mr. Lazarescu, clearly the worse for wear, is having trouble even walking, and tumbles into the tub in his bathroom. After a brusque examination, the ambulance nurse is content to treat her patient with a glucose injection, a painkiller, and a recommendation for a doctor's visit on Monday. His severe stomach pain, however, suggests advanced cancer to her, and she decides to take him in. So begins Mr. Lazarescu's odyssey. Over the course of the night, he visits an endless string of hospitals, each of which sends him away for a different reason. Doctors range from awkwardly caring to aggressively abusive, while the ambulance nurse - Mr. Lazarescu's constant companion - simply tries to do her job, filling out forms, carrying clothes, and answering questions. With each change of location, his condition worsens; by the last transfer, he is barely conscious and is unaware of the world around him. It's obvious from the film's title that the night's journey will be a fruitless one so, when the camera winks out just before Mr. Lazarescu finally has the surgery he needs, it's no mystery what will transpire.
Were we not told otherwise, it would be easy to mistake The Death of Mr. Lazarescu for a documentary. It almost appear to happen in real time, and conventional narrative devices like back stories, establishing shots, and shot-reverse-shot conversations are totally absent. Instead, we have a handheld camera that tracks an old man through what happens to be the last night of his life. The soundtrack is whatever the characters hear, from the constant droning of a television to the brutal rattling of an ambulance's shot suspension system; from the aural chaos of a busy emergency room to the quiet gossip of a bored nurse. None of the actors have the looks or magnetism we've come to expect from the characters in our fiction films. Instead, they look for all the world like real, tired people. Some are more worn than others, but all of them have been scarred by life.
According to its director, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is an exploration of "the love of humanity" through the absence of said love. In his eyes, the entire night depicts failure after failure to give simple, human love to one who needs it (though he may not deserve it). Watching the film, though, I see something very different. I see a tremendous range of interactions, some of which are cold. Others, however, all but glow with an easy, natural warmth. While no one in the film is willing to go too far out of his or her way to help Mr. Lazarescu, countless people do help him in the small ways they feel are open to them. While a grand sacrifice and a race against the clock to save the patient's life would perhaps be more typical of what we're used to, a gruff word to someone who simply needs to interact can show just as much love as a dramatic rescue.
Mr. Lazarescu's neighbor Sandro (Doru Ana) is a big, burly man who spends a lot of time lecturing his friend when he finds out that he is ill. He hates Mr. Lazarescu's cats, the filth in which the man lives, and the fact that he never pays Sando back for the things he "borrows." He also heckles his own wife, constantly sending her to fetch things from their apartment and expecting her to anticipate his needs. While Sandro lectures, though, he peppers his words with affectionate touches, helping Mr. Lazarescu sit up and replacing the old man's longshoreman's cap when it falls off. This unthinking physical contact shows tremendous, unspoken affection for Mr. Lazarescu, and is the single brightest spark in the film of man's capacity for love.
Another source of optimism is Mioara, the ambulance nurse (played by Luminita Gheorghiu). She's professional but not friendly; caring but not emotionally involved. And yet she quietly becomes Mr. Larescu's anchor, giving him a much-needed stability in the frustrating morass that has captured him. While Mioara is rarely outwardly affectionate towards her patient, she handles him in a way that evidences at least a fond respect. Despite (or perhaps because of) his drunkenness, pain, and apparent brain injury, Mr. Lazarescu needs to communicate. While most of those he encounters ignore him or tell him to be quiet, Mioara almost always tries to understand his words, or at the very least gives him a falsely grumpy answer, matching him mood for mood. Her character is magnificently real, experiencing emotional ups and downs and riding waves of exhaustion and utter disgust as the night grows longer. And throughout it all, there is never a shred of doubt that she has a heart.
Along with his cowriter Razvan Radulescu, Cristi Puiu has created a truly remarkable film. Though he set out to present the failure of humanity to love one another, what The Death of Mr. Lazarscu in fact became is a profound exploration of the depth of the human heart. The remarkable understanding of human nature that is presented in this simple film is breathtaking, and reminds me of nothing less than Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion. The two films both present the high and lows of which man is capable, but do so with an awe-inspiring willingness to accept and love it all. If that comparison seems a bit far fetched, I can only say that this is simply the greatest, most profound new film I can remember seeing, and that nothing has affected me so powerfully since I saw Contempt for the first time more than a decade ago. The generosity and understanding with which Puiu approach his characters - and, thus, humanity in general - is both remarkable and deeply humbling. I cannot imagine that there is a better film in the Festival this year.