"Lazarescu, come forth!

":
Cristi Puiu and the Miracle of
Romanian Cinema
Jeanine Teodorescu and Anca Munteanu
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch 'éntrate!
(Abandon, all hope ye who enter)
-Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, "The Infemo"
A la fin du spectacle tu vas mourir
(At the end of the performance you are going to die)
-Eugène Ionesco, Le roi se meurt (Exit the King)
Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu received Un certain
regard at Cannes (2005), The Silver Orb Award (Alba Regia 2005),
The Golden Tower (Palie 2005), The Grand Prix of the Jury at the
Intemational Copenhagen Film Festival (2005), Bayard d'Or for
best film and best actress (Namur 2005), The London Critics Circle
Film Award (Foreign Language Film of the Year, 2006), The Chicago
Intemational Film Festival Silver Hugo Special Jury Prize (2006),
World Cinema Award, offered by BBC Four (2007). This impressive
record is not singular; many of the directors belonging to the Romanian
New Wave' have produced-often on low budget (Puiu's film cost a
mere 350,000 Euros) and in the absence of adequate infrastructure
in the sequence of production, circulation and presentation-award-
winning feature films that have impressed critics worldwide and that
have been considered one of the most stimulating and promising
developments in recent years in Eastem European national cinemas.^
According to Puiu, The Death of Mr Lazarescu^ is part of a
projected series entitled "Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest,"
inspired by Eric Rohmer's Six contes moraux (Six Moral Tales). They
51
are conceived as love stories—the love between a man and a woman,
love for one's children, love of success, love between friends, and
carnal love. The Death of Mr Làzàrescu, the first film of the series,
is predicated on the ancient Biblical command "Love thy neighbor as
thyself, , which is derived from the Hebrew verses: "But the stranger
that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one bom among you,
and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land
of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:34) and continues to be an essential feature
of Christianity. Puiu plays splendidly with the complexities of this
commandment, which establishes the proper relation of human beings
to one another, modeled on the relation of human beings to God. The
very logic of this directive suggests that the love we should have for
our neighbors is identical to the love God has for us—complete and
perfect. Love for God equals love for humankind. But the ethos of
neighborly love is certainly intricate and difficult in the story. This
meticulous problematization is one of the virtues of Puiu's film and,
as this essay argues, its force comes primarily from the exceptional
mastery of the film's mise-en-scène.
The Death of Mr Làzàrescu is the story of a 62-year-old retired
engineer, Dante Remus Làzàrescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), who lives with
his three cats in a shabby, dirty apartment in Bucharest. On Saturday
morning he wakes up with an unusually severe headache and acute
stomach pain; in the evening, after hours of useless self-medication,
he calls for an ambulance. While waiting for its arrival, Làzàrescu
drinks Mastropol, a strong homemade alcoholic drink, and calls his
sister, who lives with her husband in Târgu-Mure§, a Transylvanian
city relatively far from Bucharest. When it becomes evident that the
ambulance is not coming, Làzàrescu calls again and then asks for his
neighbors' assistance. They give him some pills for nausea, help him
back to his apartment, and lay him down on his bed.
Gradually his condition worsens, and soon he vomits blood.
The ambulance finally arrives and Mioara (Luminija Gheorghiu), the
paramedic, performs an examination while inquiring into Làzàrescu's
medical history. He had had ulcer surgery more than ten years before
and suffers from varicose veins on both legs. Suspecting colon cancer,
a more serious condition than Làzàrescu is prepared to accept, Mioara
decides to take him to the emergency room. Before leaving for the
hospital, she calls Làzàrescu's sister and advises that she come and
visit her brother as soon as possible. They set out for the emergency
52
room, but because of a massive traffic accident which had taken place
just hours before, three hospitals, overcrowded with the injured,
refuse to accept him. When Mr. Lâzàrescu finally arrives at the fourth
hospital, it is probably too late. Two nurses scrupulously prepare him
for the surgical procedure, but there is no indication-the ending is
rather ambiguous-that Làzàrescu will even make it to the surgery
room. In fact. Valerian Sava interprets the black screen after the cut of
the film's last shot as an ellipsis, not as the death of Làzàrescu ;?er se.
In his view, the ritual of bathing before surgery parallels the bathing of
the corpse before the fiineral.
There is no question that the film, which has the traumatizing
characteristics of a nightmare, puts the viewer in a state of strange
and intense anguish. And yet, Puiu reduces the intensity of this almost
unbearable feeling by presenting a multitude of facts, interesting
people, and discrete events. First, we have Làzàrescu's three neighbors-
-Sandu (Doru Ana) and Mihaela Sterian (Dana Dogaru), the couple
living across the hallway from Làzàrescu's apartment, and Gelu, a
young man who lives upstairs with his family. None of these three
characters, despite their apparent concem, really pays much attention
to the sick man; they actually focus on Làzàrescu only at those times
when they are criticizing him or joking about his heavy drinking (thus
anticipating some doctors' reactions later in the movie) or when they
censure him for his negligence and his filthy apartment. Otherwise,
they remain completely absorbed in their own trivial preoccupations—
the cooking of quince jelly, the return of a drill that Gelu had borrowed
from Sandu, and their plans for a trip to a wine producer in Focçani,
an area famous for its vineyards, and so on—as if Làzàrescu were just
an unpleasant, annoying interruption in their normal lives over the
weekend.
The neighbors' casual chatting, which takes place almost
exclusively around or over Làzàrescu's head, juxtaposed with his
quiet, unnoticed slipping away from the world represents one ofthe
most brilliantly choreographed passages in Puiu's film. These scenes
are disturbing and funny at the same time, the characters sometimes
eliciting our censure or disapproval, but the action overall remains
profoundly touching. Such moments include Sandu's conversation
with his younger neighbor which, ironically, reveals that the wine
Làzàrescu imbibes and for which he is either teased or chastised is,
in fact, acquired, at a price, through the very neighbors who mock
53
him. Equally ironic is the discussion in the building's hallway (where
the light flickers on and off) about various incongruous remedies that
Sandu and Mihaela offer Läzärescu at random. Probably the funniest
moment of this segment is generated by Mihaela's strange idea to offer
Läzärescu a plate of homemade pork moussaka, an unusually rich and
indigestible dish, only moments after Läzärescu has vomited blood.
All these details exhibit Mihaela's and her husband's shocking
ignorance and lack of minimal common sense (for example, they
suggest and offer to Läzärescu various types of medications that they
have in the house). Remarkable comic characters (echoing Ionesco's
absurdest humor), present features that will resurface in many of
the film's scenes, especially in the portrayal of doctors and nurses
from several hospitals. The foolish pair, Mihaela and Sandu, who
continually insult one another or argue with each other and who, out
of ignorance combined with a know-it-all attitude, could have easily
killed Läzärescu themselves, show certain, albeit feeble, signs of
compassion and kindness. Sandu, for instance, would probably have
accompanied Läzärescu to the hospital (as the paramedic recommends)
if it were not for his wife; Mihaela in turn, despite her selfishness
and discourtesy, cleans the slippers and the carpet on which the old
man has vomited. In any case, Puiu's technique does not allow for the
viewer's distancing himself too much from these two characters. They
may remind us of ourselves in our less-than-entirely-noble moments.
Nonetheless, what happens in the film's second part is tragically and
inescapably connected to Sandu's (conscious or unconscious) failure
to heed Läzärescu's call for help after he has fallen in the bathtub and
seriously hurt his head.
The second part of the film narrates Läzärescu's Kafkaesque
journey through the dreadful circles of the Romanian medical Inferno
and, simultaneously, his progressive loss of independence, force,
mobility, command of language, control of bowels, and even clothes.
Between Saturday night and early Sunday moming, Mioara and the
ambulance's driver, Leo (Gabriel Spahiu) cart Läzärescu to four
hospitals. At St. Spiridon Hospital, Läzärescu's first stop, the medical
personnel orbit obediently about a middle-aged doctor who patronizes
and infantilizes his patients, insults Läzärescu for his drinking, and
reprimands Mioara for bringing him into the emergency room. Granted
that he has to deal with a multitude of patients at the same time, this
short-tempered and vain character fails to perform adequately. In
54
the end, his diagnosis comes as "You are fine! Just stop drinking."
At the University Hospital, Làzàrescu's second stop, the neurologist,
the ER doctor, and the radiologist act properly but in a distressingly
impersonal manner, absorbed as they are in playful flirtations and
repartee among themselves. The neurologist's colleague. Dr. Bresla§u,
displays such cynicism (perhaps his only armor against the stresses
of his profession) that even his remarkable sense of humor becomes
difficult, if not impossible, to handle for some spectators.
At Filaret Hospital, the two young doctors who examine
Làzàrescu are particularly ruthless and offensive, treating Mioara not
as a colleague but as a person of inferior professional status who needs
to be reminded, repeatedly, how insignificant she is. It is precisely this
unprofessional conduct and unrestrained self-importance that increase
the viewer's anger when confronted with the doctors' ridiculous
attempts to have Làzàrescu, almost totally incapacitated at this point,
fill out forms, sign consents before surgery, and answer questions
that he does not understand. If the earlier doctors are arrogant and
ultimately ineffectual, these two doctors are purely inhumane. They
display a false and unbecoming sense of superiority that divides the
world into "us"-young, healthy, strong, important, and competent,-
-and "them"-old, sick, weak, poor, and insignificant. In fact, the
patient's incapacity to make a decision tums into a pretext for them
not to perform their duties.
The final stop is the Bagdasar Hospital, where Làzàrescu is
finally admitted. It is a mysterious place, dimly lit and almost deserted.
Interestingly, the nurses and doctors are all women with soft voices
and delicate and efficient gestures. Again, Puiu cleverly moves the
emphasis from the institution and the abstract to the individual and
the particular. Cranky, sarcastic, unpleasant, and generally isolated
in his miserable loneliness, at the beginning of the film Làzàrescu
nevertheless had an identity, a history, habits, animals that he loved
and protected, and, no matter how estranged or alienated, a family. At
the end ofthe film, this individual is reduced to a piece of flesh on an
infirmary bed in a cold hospital.
ft is difficult to repress one's anger and frustration with these
presumptuous and detached doctors. Even those who seem to listen
to Làzàrescu more attentively and who do not insult or patronize him
(most of them call him "pops") are trapped in this cycle of indifference
that inevitably victimizes the patients in both blatant and insidious
55
ways. Generally, the doctors' language is designed to infantilize
Lazarescu or make him feel guilty, to humiliate or embarrass him. It
seems that the institution (hospital, emergency rooms, medical staff)
is there mainly for the doctors and not for the suffering patients. Like
Arthur, one of Frederick Wiseman's characters in his documentary
Titicut Follies, about the appalling conditions at an asylum for the
criminally insane, Lazarescu might very well say, "the place is doing
me harm."
However, the image of the Romanian health-care
establishment is not uniformly dark. Following the same formula that
he used in Sandu's and Mihaela's portraits, Puiu presents the doctors
and nurses from these four hospitals with a mixture of brutal honesty
and compassion. They are vivid and complex characters; many are
portrayed in a negative light, but there are some whose humanity
is evident. At the Trauma Center, the tall insufferable doctor who
condemns Lazarescu for drinking by calling him "a pig" and who also
repeatedly insults Mioara, eventually writes an order for a CAT scan
at another hospital. Dr. Dragoç Popescu, the neurologist, has patience
and understanding (his name is the shortened form of Dragomir,
which means "precious peace"). Under extreme duress in the ER at
the University Hospital (ten to twenty seriously injured people had
just been brought in after the truck accident). Dr. Popescu calls another
doctor and asks him to help his patient by conducting an immediate
brain and liver tomography. When told that it is impossible because
of the overwhelming situation. Dr. Popescu replies, "Would you have
done it if I had told you that this was my mother-in-law?" Lazarescu is
finally accepted by Dr. Bresla§u, who is in charge of the tomographer,
and has a mordantly clever sense of humor; he asks his assistant to
prepare the patient for "launching" (being put inside the tomographer),
after telling her that Mr. Lazarescu will have two photos taken "of the
pâté and the attic" (the liver and the brain). It is this scan which reveals
a blood clot in his brain and a problem with his liver that "nobody,"
Breslaçu observes, "can do anything about." He is also a good-hearted
human being; after he discovers the seriousness of Läzärescu's state
of health-"These neoplasms are Discovery Channel stuff—Bresla§u
calls in the surgeons' unit; unfortunately, nothing can be done under
the circumstances: the life and death cases caused by the accident have
precedence.
To create even more ambiguity in the depiction of the medical
56
personnel, Puiu not only suggests that long hours and a persistently
stressful environment bleed compassion out of doctors-a realistic and
credible argument-but also presents Làzàrescu himself as a difficult
and, according to Leo, the ambulance driver, a rather irresponsible
patient. As short-tempered and vain as are some of the doctors he
encounters along his joumey from one hospital to another, Làzàrescu,
stubbom and irascible, annoys almost everybody, including Mioara,
who repeatedly asks him to keep his mouth shut. The film's first
segment, which contains the scenes preceding the nightmarish
ambulance ride, functions as a biographical prologue to Dante
Làzàrescu's descent into the infemal territory of his final hours and
provides the viewer with details about his life through various scenes
and short but revealing conversations. His wife had died of cancer
eight years earlier, and his only daughter, Bianca, lives in, Canada.
Làzàrescu has a younger sister, Eva, who is married to a man named
Virgil. This couple has no children, but Bianca seems to be rather close
to them since, in his phone conversation with his sister, Làzàrescu
complains that his daughter calls them more often than she calls him.
His phone conversation with Eva and Virgil, in particular, reveals
an intractable and impetuous character who defends his excessive
drinking and insists that as long as he pays for his alcohol he should
be left alone. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the only possible
answer to the frequently repeated question asked by doctors and
nurses, in various hospitals, "Who is accompanying him?" is that, in
fact, there is no close relative or friend there with him. And yet, even
this answer, which time and again would appear to define Làzàrescu's
distressing condition, is made ambiguous by Puiu's and Ràdulescu's
intentionally unsententious script. Despite his own desire "to be left
alone," he finds in Mioara the mysterious presence of a very Good
Samaritan.
However, even the endlessly tolerant Mioara, the most
touching character in the film, has an inexplicable moment of
unkindness, when she ignores Làzàrescu's frantic request for some
water. Otherwise, although herself in pain (she has gall-bladder
problems), Mioara proves to be a true guardian angel to Làzàrescu.
At first, Mioara wants someone to take Làzàrescu off her hands, but
her attempt to convince Sandu or Mihaela to accompany Làzàrescu to
the ER fails and, consequently, she is forced to remain with him until
the end. In the ambulance, she talks to him out of common courtesy
57
and perhaps compassion. But the more the doctors try to dispose of
Làzàrescu, the more emotionally involved with him she becomes,
claiming the case as her own. In fact, all the hospital workers tend
to see Làzàrescu as her problem. In each hospital, she tries hard to
advocate for his cause in order to convince the doctors to take care of
the patient she has brought in and to advocate for his cause. She tries
to comfort him until the very end, even after six or seven hours spent
on the way from one hospital to another. In the neurological section
ofthe hospital, where the two young doctors reach the highest level of
callousness and arrogance, Mioara's courage and defiance are simply
heroic. In that place, where human life is held cheap and betrayed,
she restores a sense of dignity and basic human decency. Through her,
Puiu moves forward one ofthe film's main themes: the individual's
effort to preserve his or her humanity and dignity while struggling
against arbitrary laws and dehumanizing bureaucratic systems.
Complex human events such as Làzàrescu's conversation
with his sister, the phone conversation with the emergency services,
his interactions with his neighbors, Mioara, and the doctors are not
evoked stenographically, in a conventional fragmented fashion, but
explored in what we imagine to be their "real" duration. Following
the film's rather intriguing first frame-the image, in the darkness of
the night, of a soulless, Soviet-style apartment building with several
lit windows-the camera enters Làzàrescu's apartment, tracking his
movements from one room to another, from his apartment to his
neighbors' door, then back into his apartment where the encounter
with Mioara, the nurse, will take place, and finally out of his apartment
and into the ambulance.
The moderately slow motion ofthe camera allows us to see at
great length the filthy kitchen table, the dirty dishes clustered by the
sink, the rusted strainer hanging on the wall, the dusty newspapers
scattered on shelves, on the table in the living room, and on chairs,
and the soiled sheets covering his sofa and the armchair. The shot of
the drab outside (the street and the building), followed by the essential
squalor of the apartment in the next shot, prepare the portrayal of Puiu's
anti-hero, in a style similar to Balzac's descriptions in his novels,
which start with detailed depictions of the city, the street, and the
house, and then proceed to the rooms as reflections ofthe character's
personality. Similarly, most ofthe film, although documentary-like,
forces us to participate in the whole experience. This has to do with
tempo, rhythm, movement, the image of paramedics pushing the
58
stretcher towards the camera in a back traveling shot. The remarkable
result of this technique is that one almost/ee/s oneself inside the film.
Puiu's use of such strategies activates the viewer's emotional and
rational faculties in complete synchronization with the script and the
mise-en-scène. This is part of a shooting philosophy which, instead
of anticipating what is going to happen, attempts to capture, rather
intensely, the drama that is unfolding. In short, Puiu does not impose
an aesthetic, but allows the material to reveal itself This delicately
choreographed dialogue between the camera and the viewers creates
a sense of immediateness, of raw material delivered in a documentary
style.
There is nothing particularly didactic about this sequence of
scenes; images live entirely in the moment, simply showing reality,
generating no manufactured conflicts and raising no platforms for
sermons. What seems to interest Puiu is the authenticity of his images,
their power to impress the audience and force them to live with this
smelly old dmnk in his bleak world. More importantly, the most
forceful, indeed visceral, images undoubtedly disturb the viewers'
sense of voyeuristic detachment, of emotional equilibrium and,
hence, of complacency. Consequently, compared to traditional films,
where directors use cinematic elements to persuade viewers through
provoked emotions, Puiu's film leaves the viewers in a state of general
intellectual angst.
Close-ups are an important element, particularly in the film's
first segment, which explores how a certain individual copes with
loneliness, suffering-physical and emotional-and abandonment.
Läzärescu is introduced almost immediately, in the film's second frame;
we see an aging man, unshaved, wearing a grey knit cap and a striped
polo shirt, living alone with his three cats. He is completely indifferent
to his repulsive surroundings and focuses all his attention on his cats.
The tension between the desolation surrounding this old man and the
affection his voice radiates when he talks to his cats is intensified by
the tight, almost-too-intense close-ups. The shot composition of this
segment is completely controlled by the physicality of Läzärescu's
movements and gestures. The interior of his apartment functions as an
emotional correlative to Läzärescu's character and circumstances. The
close-ups, the choice of objects and actions (the disheveled apartment,
Läzärescu's constant drinking, and the tense phone conversation with
his family), are perfectly calibrated by Oleg Mutu's cinematography.
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Làzàrescu's entire drama is told without theatrical or melodramatic
elements, extravagant lighting, or affected acting.
The film's diegetic world supports the mood of documentary
realism and the cinéma vérité approach. Traditionally associated
with hand-held camera filming, the use of unstable and jerky images
indicates Puiu's admiration for auteur films and for a cinematic look
as far away as possible from commercial movies. There are Godardian
influences such as the scene where Làzàrescu and his neighbor, Sandu,
hear an announcement on TV about the tragic events that will later
play an essential role in the protagonist's own tragedy. This second
embedded discourse ofthe television set recalls the Deleuzian principle
of the "crystal image". Deleuze describes "the crystal image" as an
exchange enacted between the actual and the virtual and explains how
modern cinema has managed to abandon such devices as flashbacks
and slow motion, for example, in favor of an increasingly ambiguous
relationship between these two categories. The crystal image involves
a multifaceted, mysterious record of juxtaposed realities. In Puiu's
movie, this juxtaposition creates a touching exploration of possibility,
choice, and fate. Also, like Wiseman, Puiu utilizes the mode of indirect
address-the viewer is not acknowledged by the film, characters do not
look at the camera nor speak directly to us. His film involves a faith
in apparently un-manipulated reality, a refusal to tamper with life as
it presents itself, similar to Andre Bazin's early project of allowing
reality to speak for itself.^ But, of course, there is manipulation in his
brilliant editing and his choice of camera angles. Puiu's vision owes
more to international (French New Wave and Italian Neorealism)
than to Romanian artistic influences; however, Puiu's cinematic
minimalism and his persistent use of long shots and lateral framing
can be compared to the techniques used by another Romanian director,
Lucian Pintilie. *
The Death of Mr Làzàrescu emphasizes the story-telling,
not philosophical ideas or abstract principles principles: these are the
events that took place at the end of the life of a particular, lonely,
sulïering man. Puiu's position here resonates with documentarist John
Grierson's conviction that "the ordinary affairs of people's lives are
more dramatic and more vital than all the false excitement you can
muster" (225). It is true, however, and this is undoubtedly one of
Puiu's most remarkable achievements, that every detail, every gesture,
every conversation contains certain marks of recent social and political
60
history (see, for instance, Läzärescu's shabby apartment building, a
sad relic of the communist era and Soviet influence), although there
is no overt social or political commentary in these depressing images
and although they do not necessarily describe the situation ofa country
that only recently emerged from the darkest night of totalitarianism. In
this respect, Puiu's grim images resemble Italian Neorealism, with its
devastated streets and miserable people. But it would be too easy to
conclude that the film should be interpreted merely as a condemnation
or a satire of the Romanian medical establishment or that the film's
anti-institutional bias constitutes Puiu's main concem. Puiu, like
Lucian Pintilie, is not primarily interested in social or political critique,
although this critique is implicitly understood. Pintilie declares in an
interview:
What I want to talk about in my films, is our ineluctable
and difficult advancement towards death, a joumey
periodically lightened up by the spark of comic
revelry...It is not my responsibility to expose and
fight evil (this is the church's role). As an artist, I am
endlessly fascinated by the extraordinary multiplicity
of the monstrous, the great comic contrasts. I am
purely obsessed with the monster's unique artistry. I
do not fight it, I simply describe it. (our translation)'
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu seems to convey a similar position. The
spectators, who witness Läzärescu's frightful journey, its somber and
even its funny moments, its profound and trivial dimension, recognize
their own ineluctable advancement towards death and in so doing feel
a sense of solidarity and perhaps empathy for this man whose life ends
silently in front of their eyes. Puiu's movie is, after all, a film about
love—or lack of love— for our fellow human beings and less about
institutions or the afflictions of our time.
All three names of the protagonist, Dante Remus Lazarescu,
are important elements of the film; all are symbolic and operate under
the sign of death. Dante recalls the Divine Comedy and the narrator's
joumey through the Infemo under the guidance of Virgil. Interestingly,
there are two Virgils in the film: one is Läzärescu's brother-in-law,
with whom he speaks on the phone, and the second is the stretcher-
bearer who, at the end of the film, is called by a nurse to come and
take him to Dr. Anghel (Dr. Angel) for the surgery. Hence, Virgil is
handing Dante to the Angel. Hell will soon become a thing of the
past. Remus, one of the two mythical founders of Rome, was slain by
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his brother for having trespassed the borderline drawn by Romulus.
Làzàrescu is also at a borderline, that between life and death, which, in
the end, he will have to cross or trespass. Film critic Dominique Nasta
suggests that all three names are meant to "set up a double discourse
oscillating between the unbearable reality of pain and suffering and a
sustained ironic mode." This could be true when we recall that some
doctors remark on the gravity of Làzàrescu's first name, Dante, while
all his neighbors address him with Romicà, a humorous derivation
of Remus that demythologizes, cheapens, and renders ridiculous the
ancient name.
Làzàrescu undoubtedly refers to the resurrection of Lazarus
from the Gospel, and to Jesus's famous words, "Lazarus, come forth!"
The dead man came out of his tomb, his hands and feet bound with
strips of cloth. Jesus said to those in attendance, "unbind him and let
him go" (John 11:1-45). Mr. Làzàrescu's feet are also bandaged, and
Mioara, the paramedic, draws the nurses' attention to his bandages,
asking them to be careful. Làzàrescu's harrowing joumey through
Hell places him on the threshold of another realm, over which he is to
be guided by an angel (Dr. Anghel). This is a kind of resurrection, after
all, resembling not only that of the Biblical Lazarus but also that of
Jesus himself. But there is another story of another Lazarus: Lazarus
the poor man, who was covered with sores and very hungry, and who
was not helped by the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). He was, however,
comforted after his death and received into Abraham's bosom, while
the rich man was taken to Hell. The rich man is not accused of being
rich, but of being neglectful of the poor people around him. This story
may also apply to some of the doctors and their indifference to their
neighbors-that is, their patients.
Undoubtedly, The Death of Mr Làzàrescu, with its unique
blend of empathy and indictment, shot in the fly-on-the-wall
documentary style but rich in poetic subtexts, offers an emotionally
controlled portraiture of a suffering individual confronted with vast,
impersonal social forces and ultimately crushed by a bureaucratic
system that makes adequate medical care difficult, and, in certain
situations, impossible. But even this grave, most serious theme
becomes in Puiu's film an opportunity for black comedy* as the
doctors' inefficiency is mordantly revealed by Làzàrescu's gradual
helplessness, by his loss of mental and physical ability and command
of language. Most importantly, however, this film is not only about
62
death and institutionalized inhumanity but also about life and human
solidarity. While for the viewer the hospital experience has an
unnerving effect, Mioara's bond with Làzàrescu--a man whose profile
is both disturbing (Làzàrescu is unwell before being physically sick)
and sympathetic (his love for animals)-signifies a renewed assurance
conceming human dignity and saves the film from nihilism. Mioara
performs an ambiguous role: on the one hand, she is Làzàrescu's
much needed companion and guide through his Dantesque trials; on
the other, she is the agent of change and transition who sees her charge
to the end of the joumey. Beatrice-1 ike, she inaugurates another rite
of passage, by handing Làzàrescu over to the Angel. While guiding
her patient and bringing Làzàrescu to the end of his joumey, Mioara
develops a strange relationship of friendship with him. Interestingly
enough, like Kieslowski's Red, Puiu's film also becomes a metaphor
for love, where two human beings, a nurse and a patient, are brought
together by chance and bond, "delicately developing a network of
dependencies" (Coates 153) at the frontier between life and death.
The film presents a reflection on agape (love as a model
for humanity, Christian love) and thanatos (death). Through this
meditation on the human condition, Puiu's cinematic memento mori
forces the audience to face death, in line perhaps with Montaigne's
philosophy of "apprivoiser la mort" (taming of death). "Le scandale
de la mort" portrayed so movingly by Ionesco's Le Roi se meurt
{Exit the King) finds its Romanian version in Puiu's The Death of Mr
Làzàrescu. The question remains: can this great "scandal," in fact,
ever become more bearable through art or any other means?
Notes
' The Romanian New Wave refers to a film style defined by a number
of characteristics, including quasi-documentary filming, long takes,
use of hand-held camera, naturally lit shots, a preference for facts
of quotidian existence, and a story that takes place over the course
of one day or evening. The camera typically follows the characters
very closely, revealing with disturbing closeness their discomfort,
anxiety, or confusion, as a result of which viewers are slowly drawn
into the actions and situation depicted. Despite the general gravity of
all these films, black humor features prominently. Philosophically, the
63
young film directors associated with this style embrace a certain type
of realism based largely on truthfulness and integrity, as opposed to
the old "allegorical" or "metaphorical" style of Romanian cinema,
a style inevitably adopted by artists forced to work in a society
suffocated politically and culturally by deception and fraud. However,
the filmmakers of this new generation reject the notion that their
individual artistic preferences can be mechanically subsumed under
a certain "movement" or "wave" and insist that nothing in their
directorial production could indicate that they should be regarded as a
unit. And yet, it is hard to deny the strong similarities connecting the
films produced by the new generation of filmmakers.
^ Other names that have become familiar to European and American
cinéphiles are Comeliu Porumboiu, whose 12:08 East of Bucharest
won the Caméra d'Or Prize, awarded to the best debut feature at the
Cannes Film Festival in 2006; Cristian Mungiu, axvQcior of 4Months, 3
Weeks, 2 Days, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival
in 2007; and Cristian Nemescu, who received the 2007 Un Certain
Regard award and the Satyajit Ray Humanitarian Award for debut
feature for his California Dreamin'. See A. O. Scott, "New Wave on
the Black Sea." New York Times Magazine, January 20, 2008: 30-35.
^ The Death of Mr Läzärescu was inspired by the real case of a 52-
year old Romanian man who, after a long journey from one hospital
to another, was literally abandoned by a paramedic in the street, where
he later died. A second source of inspiration was, according to Cristi
Puiu, his own hypochondria, the deep anxiety caused by the reading of
various medical books, and the irrational conviction that he suffered
from all the illnesses about which he was reading. Puiu needed one
year of therapy in order to recover from this temporary but serious
condition. Some of the doctors he consulted during that period treated
him inadequately and, at times, even rudely; therefore, this film
could be considered, to a certain extent, a response to their callous
and judgmental behavior. The doctors who condescend, humiliate,
or ignore Mr. Läzärescu in the film are perhaps largely modeled on
the arrogant and narcissistic doctors whom Puiu encountered during
his own suffering. Such doctors forget not only the main directive of
human love but also the Hippocratic oath, the very ethical foundation
that makes the medical profession a noble calling.
'' Some may read Mioara as Läzärescu's Virgil or as his Charon—in
64
Greek mythology, the ferryman of Hades who carried the souls ofthe
deceased across the river Lethe that separated the world ofthe living
from that ofthe dead.
^ One is reminded of Barthes's notion of the "death of the author,"
which stresses the primacy of the literary text. In this case it is the
film director who appears to be absent during the seemingly self-
documenting film, leaving the viewer with a pure and independent
cinematic "text."
^ The Romanian New Wave directors have been acknowledging
their debt to Lucian Pintilie, the internationally celebrated director,
by avoiding large-scale productions and exotic special effects.
As Dominique Nasta rightly observes in her "The Tough Road to
Minimalism: Contemporary Romanian Film Aesthetics," "these
filmmakers have demonstrated a strong belief in the virtues of textual
and visual messages that are both very close to the ironic and absurdist
Romanian psyche, on the one hand, and able to achieve an intemational
audience appeal, on the other."
^ Interview with Cinefórum. ["Quando I fantasmi si liberano, non
esistono porte per bloccarli: intervista a Lucian Pintilie"]. Cinefórum
44.438 (2004): 53-7.
^ This black comedy is rooted in the Balkan tradition, represented in
Romania by the well-known 19th-century satirical playwright Ion
Luca Caragiale (1852-1912), whose work influenced to a certain
extent Ionesco's absurdist theatre.
Works cited
Barthes, Roland. "La mort de l'Auteur." Le bruissement de la langue.
Essais critiques IV, Paris: Seuil, 1984. 61-67.
Coates, Paul, ed. Lucid Dreams: The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Trowbridge, England: Flicks Books, 1999.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema II: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson
and Robert Galeta. London: Athlone P, 1989. 81.
Duma, Dana. "Cristi Puiu: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu."
kinokultura.eom/specials/6/duma.shtml, 2007.
65
Grierson, John. Grierson on Documentary. Ed. Forsyth Hard.
Berkeley: U of Califomia P, 1966. 225.
Ionesco, Eugène. Le Roi se meurt. Paris: Larousse, 1972.
Martea, Ion. On the Romanian New Wave, www.culturewars.org.uk/
index.php/site/article/on the romanian new wave
Morpurgo, Horatio. Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu.
November 2006. www.threemonkevsonline.com/authors/Horatio_
Morpurgo.htm
Nasta, Dominique. "The Tough Road to Minimalism: Contemporary
Romanian Film Aesthetics." www.kinokultura.eom/specials/6/
nasta.shtml, 2007.
Rado, Petre. "A Little Bit of Patience." www.kinokultura.com/
specials/6/rado.shtml, 2007.
Sava, Valerian. "Un film de cinci stele: Moartea domnului Lazarescu."
www.observatorcultural.ro/Numaru 1-288 *numberlD_275-
summarv.html
Scott, A. O. "New Wave on the Black Sea." www.nytimes/2008/01/20/
magazine/20Romanian-t.html
Stojanova, Christina and Dana Duma. "The New Romanian
Cinema: Editorial Remarks." www.kinokultura.eom/specials/6/
introduction.shtml, 2007.
Wiseman, Frederick. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman: Titicut Follies,
High School, Welfare, High School IL Public Housing. Transcr.
and ed. Barry Keith Grant. Berkley: U of California P, 2006.
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