The emotional equivalent of United 93, with no planes and slightly more medical treatment, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a poker-faced, impeccably acted Romanian tragicomedy of twin failures: the modern letdown of the medical establishment and the eternal horror of biological betrayal. Okay, it's no date movie, this unpleasant serving of truth, but it is astonishingly well observed and touchs depths of genuine emotion modern cinema generally seems too embarrassed to pursue.
Widowed 62-year-old pensioner Lazarescu Dante Remus (Ion Fiscuteanu) putters around the emptiness of his apartment (mitigated only by a silent cat and barking television) with a vague sense of unease brought on by four days of headache and vomiting. Before long, the unease is evidently disease. Leaning on the distracted kindness of his neighbors—folks who give the impression they'll run back to their own lives at the earliest convenience—Lazarescu lies down and awaits the ambulance he called an eternity before. "An ambulance on a Saturday?", asks one neighbor. "You think they will bother?"
The ambulance finally arrives, about an hour into the picture, with a bit more carrot-on-a-stick hope. The sympathetic paramedic (Luminita Gheorghiu) bonds with the old man as she pays silenced witness to his humiliation and utter disempowerment at the hands of doctors and nurses. Lazarescu has dulled his pain with drink, a tragic error that everyone he encounters seizes as an excuse to dismiss his mortal pains.
"Isn't the doctor's duty to take care of the patient?" Naively, Lazarescu thinks he'll be recognized, prioritized, or at least patronized—while awaiting the ambulance, he calls back the phone nurse and announces, "It's me again"—but the doctors range from apathetic to downright belligerent. The first emergency doctor, sarcastic and ornery, ruthlessly bullies his patient: "Did I put the bottle in your hand, you pig?" The patient's proud pronouncement of his full name to each new doctor becomes a disturbing requiem, even more so in its later absence.
Constantly sent away to be someone else's problem (but loyally escorted by the increasingly disturbed paramedic), Lazarescu will roll through four different hospitals in the greater Bucharest area. After over six hours in the system and over two and a half hours of screen time, Lazarescu can no longer even stand on his last legs. Aphasia delivers the cruellest blow, definitively robbing him of the ability to be understood, and making the absurd formality of a pre-surgery release a sticking place where he's meant to stick his courage, if he could only grasp the concept.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu's uniquely Eastern European brand of absurdity recalls the work of Vaclav Havel, playwright and former President of Czechoslovakia. At least, it would be absurd if it weren't so credible. Writer-director Cristi Puiu (co-scripting with Razvan Radulescu) makes no detail accidental. In what amounts to even more than an objective view of accompanying someone to the hospital (itself an impressive dramatic feat), Puiu's film carefully highlights its universal hero's social circumstances and existential crisis.
With his sister and daughter both out of reach (the latter, in Toronto, enjoys his not-lightly-offered financial support), Lazarescu is the pit at the core of a rotting fruit. A horrifyingly vulnerable Everypatient, he can't even hold the focus of his own film (literally: it's a visual motif). Each man ultimately faces his death alone, as life goes on for everyone else. Puiu builds up a terrible rhythm of hope and letdown (an oblique reference to a medical scandal does Lazarescu no favors); like the paramedic, we see the old man's deterioriation in a way each fresh doctor cannot.
Even as he feels for his hero, Puiu never forgets to glimpse the other patients around him. Much as we would like to think so, Lazarescu isn't exceptional, and doesn't deserve special treatment. New patients arrive (the distraction of a bus accident spells particularly bad luck for our hero), and testy staffers commiserate or strike up unnervingly casual conversations while he must wait patiently. In answer to that aforementioned question—"Isn't the doctor's duty to take care of the patient?"—the ambulance driver responds, "And what is the patient's duty?" Lazarescu learns the answer the hard way, going from "mens sana in corpore sano" ("a sound mind in a sound body") to an abandoned, empty vessel.