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The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

The best (and least profitable) film of the year



The Death of Mr. Lazarescu opens Friday at Chelsea in Chapel Hill.

Sliding into hell: Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) gets scanned. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TARTAN FILMS USA

At the end of last year, as I noted at the time, 107 North American film critics polled by IndieWIRE named The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a sophomore feature by 30-something Romanian director Cristi Puiu, the best movie of 2006. As one of those voting for the film, I was astonished to find myself in rare agreement with so many other film scribes.

But far more astonishing was what IndieWIRE reported in disclosing this verdict: After nine months in release, and having received an endless string of rave reviews, the film had earned all of $80,000. In industry parlance, that's chump change. I would hazard that it's also something of a record: the greatest disparity between acclaim and earnings ever—or at least in recent U.S. history.

Contemplating that gap, my first thought is to be grateful that a film of such uncompromising and unusual excellence as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu even got released in the United States. I'm similarly thankful that it's finally getting a belated run in the Triangle.

Yet the distance between the film's renown and its box-office returns is also perplexing. Does it indicate that even serious cinephiles are putting less and less stock in the recommendations of critics? Perhaps, but I frankly doubt that's nearly as much a factor as something else: The rapidly diminishing public understanding of film as art, in the sense that that phrase has been used in the West since World War II.

Clearly, Puiu and his movie belong to a line that includes the likes of Visconti, Bergman, Antonioni, Godard and Fassbinder. Occasional flukish hits like Blow-Up aside, I won't pretend there was ever a huge U.S. audience for European cinema at its high-modernist peak. Yet there was an audience, and more than that, a workable consensus among educated filmgoers as to the nature of these films' artistic ambitions and meaning.

If that consensus perhaps started unraveling as far back as the death of Fassbinder in 1982, it nonetheless survives to the extent of assuring the reputations of artists like Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Aleksandr Sokurov. Increasingly, though, such filmmakers belong to festivals, big-city venues and specialized journals, while the theaters once known as art houses are awash in the ersatz, the trendy, the Oscar-bound.

Granted, Mr. Lazarescu would've been a hard sell even in more intellectually alert times. There's no way that concrete-block Bucharest will ever seem as inviting as Paris or Tuscany. Nor can the film's story readily be made to sound sexy or scintillating: It concerns a fat old alcoholic who starts puking blood and then slowly fades toward oblivion as an exasperated paramedic nurse hauls him through the uncaring ERs of four successive hospitals.

Yet this story is essentially just a pretext. Though it's not unimportant for the particular artistic opportunities it affords Puiu, the same goals might have been served by filming characters chatting in a café or reading the Bucharest phone book. What really distinguishes the film—and performs an alchemical transmutation on the ostensibly banal subject—is its pure and singular cinematic vision, a term I use in at least two senses.

First is the literal. When we initially see 62-year-old Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), he's puttering around his dingy apartment, petting his cats, talking to his sister on the phone, flicking on the TV to see the report of a highway accident, taking some painkillers and quickly spitting them up. He soon calls an ambulance and elicits the help of two neighbors, but even before this happens, it's impossible not to be struck by the peculiar clarity and balance of the filmmaking, the muted colors and lighting, the studiously understated choreography as the characters and Andrei Butica's hand-held camera negotiate the apartment's cramped spaces.

The film establishes a deliberate, unhurried rhythm early on. It doesn't try to strong-arm our interest or hurl us into some irresistible dramatic flux. Rather, it stands back patiently, intently, and invites us to witness the details of behavior and place that it meticulously observes. If you accept this invitation as it's intended—which means foregoing expectations for the quick-pulse entertainment that most movies entail—you'll come out of Puiu's film with the feeling of having viewed a world with an almost uncanny precision and lucidity.

The other sense of vision, meanwhile, has to do not with the eyes but with the understanding. What is Mr. Lazarescu about? Perhaps the most obvious answer to that involves the journey through the Romanian hospital system it takes us on. On the night Mr. Lazarescu is unfortunate enough to fall ill, Bucharest's emergency rooms are suddenly overwhelmed with the injured from a bus crash. That's one reason he has a hard time getting the treatment he needs, but it's not the only one. Every hospital is a different story, and Puiu renders each set of doctors and nurses with a scrupulousness that's at once subtly witty and carefully dispassionate.

If you were able to coax the staff of, say, Duke Medical Center to go see this Romanian art film, you'd likely give it an audience at once fascinated and bemused, struck less by the differences in their health-care system and ours (though some of these are notable) than by the universality of medical-profession personality types, not to mention the pecking orders and individual agendas that shape responses in the pressured atmosphere of a hospital receiving area in the wee hours.

Yet all of this is, again, pretext, Puiu's raw materials. Chief among the film's real subjects, I think, is cinema itself. Like many masterpieces in the European tradition, Mr. Lazarescu begins by challenging and rejecting the easy conventions that shape most people's experience of movies. For example, far from having good guys and bad guys, it rather amazingly gives us a range of characters who are all presented as almost equally sympathetic and unsympathetic, genuine and ridiculous. (Startlingly, Puiu has said that every doctor in the film is a critical portrait of himself!)

Likewise, the film so undermines the usual definitions of—and distinctions between—comedy and drama as to leave us with the impression of an almost forensic factualness. Drama? Yes, it's there, but so muted that you might mistake it for reportage. As for the lighter side, the film's publicity evinces a certain desperation in calling it "the year's most acclaimed comedy." Alas, this may be the kind of film that some people laugh at because they're unsure of how else to respond, but it's comedy in approximately the sense that Kafka is comedy. Which is to say that its elements of vertiginous drollery aren't competing with Chris Rock.

Ultimately, though, Mr. Lazarescu's meditation on cinematic possibility (and its abuses) points us back into the world. Its title character may be a shambling, smelly drunk who gradually devolves into an incoherent blob of bed-wetting protoplasm as the tale rolls on. Yet the film's arresting affect is to remind us that, from Don Quixote to Madame Bovary to Willy Loman, much of post-medieval Western literary and dramatic art has stubbornly testified to the value of the individual life, no matter how ignoble or troubled. In escorting us into the greatest drama of all—life vs. death—Puiu likewise insists on the irreducible humanity of Mr. Lazarescu even while quietly suggesting that all of us will die as he does: alone. Beyond that, the director has said that his film was prompted by the idea of love, which we find very discretely but powerfully present in the actions of a middle-aged nurse who doggedly keeps trying to care for her patient.

Like many of cinema's greatest artists, Puiu seems intently interested in both the smallest details of life and their largest conceptual (one might even say metaphysical) implications; he's content to leave everything in between, all the usual busyness and ephemera of movies, to the entertainers. As Joyce did in Ulysses, he wreathes his journeying Everyman in allusive nomenclature. His Dante has not one but two Virgils: characters who are spoken of but not seen at either end of the film.

And Lazarescu refers to Lazarus. Puiu has said he was thinking of the Gospel of John's account of this character, whose resurrection prefigures Christ's own, and wondered what Lazarus' death was like. The director has also remarked that the film is meant to testify to his belief that "God has created a perfect universe," a statement he immediately qualifies by saying his God is not that of the theologians but of the discoveries of science: the Logos evident in molecules and galaxies.

With the collapse of the Soviet empire over a decade and a half ago (note that Mr. L had a stomach-ulcer operation at about the same time), the cinemas of Eastern Europe veered toward extinction. Mr. Lazarescu provides heartening evidence that at least one of them may be on the verge of, well, resurrection. The only question is whether audiences in the West, sunk as they are in distraction and commercialism, will recognize the artistic achievements this renewal might produce.

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