The Death of Mr. Lazarescu [subtitled]

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

This is one of those movies where my opinion of it is decidedly higher than the degree to which I actually enjoyed watching it.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a two and a half hour Romanian movie done in a naturalistic, minimalist style. No music, no special effects, not a whole lot of action. The story develops slowly and methodically, with a great deal of mundane detail. The whole movie takes place in one day—one could probably figure it out more exactly, but I’m guessing ten to twelve hours—so it’s not that far removed from watching something in real time, rather than something that’s been edited to include only the “high points.”

For me at least, it’s almost impossible for a movie of that description to not be grueling to get through. And this film wasn’t an exception; for a decent portion of this movie, I was forcing myself to watch. (The movie seems slowest for the first hour. It’s at almost exactly the one hour mark that the main character reaches the first hospital.)

On the other hand, there’s a great deal to admire about this movie, and when I look back on it as a whole—rather than thinking about how I was or wasn’t gripped by individual scenes—I like it quite a bit and am glad I watched it.

The basic storyline is that the hapless 62 year old Mr. Lazarescu falls ill, and suffers through a series of Kafkaesque adventures in a nightmarish, labyrinthine health care system.

It’s not quite what I was expecting after having read a description of it, by the way. I assumed it would be an attack on the Romanian health care system specifically, or systems like that (actually my first thought was that it would be an attack on Communist health care systems, but of course they got rid of Communism a long time ago), but I’d say this is pretty close to universal. Sure, the specifics are going to differ from case to case and country to country, but there are plenty of patient experiences this bad in Third World countries and the U.S., and to a lesser extent even in countries with civilized health care systems.

I also expected maybe more of a satire or a black comedy. But while the film is not without its moments of humor, really it’s pretty much a serious movie from start to finish. If there’s any exaggeration it’s minimal, certainly not enough to rise to the level of satire.

Actually I’d say one of the most noteworthy and most praiseworthy aspects of this film is precisely how realistic it is. In style and content, there are times you almost think you’re watching a documentary with hidden cameras. Just about everything people say and do is what you could imagine people saying and doing in the circumstances (which doesn’t make it any less outrageous), including commonplace details that would almost certainly have been cut out of most movies to bring it to a more reasonable running time. Things like small talk and little flirtations and such that maybe don’t move the story along, but add to the overall atmosphere of realism, and paint a picture of the totality of the world Mr. Lazarescu finds himself in.

Through the first hour, which as I say for me was the slowest, we get to know Mr. Lazarescu at home, in his apartment with his three cats, interacting with his neighbors, experiencing the headaches and nausea that commence his harrowing journey. For the final hour and a half we watch his physical and mental deterioration (eventually he can do no more than babble incoherently) through multiple ambulance rides to multiple hospitals to encounters with multiple doctors and nurses and endless bureaucratic procedures and forms.

One thing that makes the film so realistic is precisely the fact that not everyone in the health care system treats him poorly. No one is unrealistically ideal and heroic, but their treatment of him ranges from kind to cruel, from willing to go above and beyond what’s strictly required by their job to stunning indifference, from wise to incompetent, from respectful to dehumanizing. The people who treat him the worst in some cases just seem to be unkind people who are absolutely in the wrong profession, and in some cases have at least some excuse due to overwork, fatigue, and unusual circumstances (there is a terrible bus accident the same day with multiple casualties, and Mr. Lazarescu is in effect having to compete for attention with these unfortunate folks).

And to be fair, a lot of what makes Mr. Lazarescu’s experiences so excruciating are his physical ailments themselves. Certainly there are blameworthy human actions that exacerbate his plight, but he’d be having a miserable time of it just due to his health issues and circumstantial factors that are nobody’s fault, even if he were getting excellent care.

In some ways the most impressive character in the film is the nurse who arrives at his home with an ambulance driver to pick him up, and who then remains at his side through everything until seconds before the end of the movie. In effect, she becomes his representative, his advocate. Though she has something of a hard exterior, and she takes her share of shots at Mr. Lazarescu, she adopts as her personal quest that he actually receive decent care from the system.

She informs, she argues, she cajoles, she swallows her pride, she negotiates, she takes him to the next destination, she obeys, she fills out forms—whatever it takes in any given circumstances to keep the process moving, to give him a chance to survive this ordeal. Only at the very end is she finally willing to step away and say in effect, “I’ve done all I can. It’s not my responsibility any longer.”

As bad as things are, without her he’d be in a lot worse shape.

Paradoxically, the less functional Mr. Lazarescu becomes, and the more he’s talked at (or about) and not with, and the more he retreats into a helpless shell, and the more he takes on the attributes of (and is treated like) a thing and not a person, the more his humanity is apparent. Even as he deteriorates, I never had to force myself to care about him, I never had to remind myself that he’s still a person. Instead, the anguish of his plight worked its way deeper into me.

I mentioned that the movie does have some humor here and there. There’s some sharp dialogue, but rarely is the realism compromised in order to inject a funny line; the humorous dialogue generally flows smoothly from the situation.

The one recurring humorous theme—though it’s also infuriating if one thinks about it happening in real life—is the fact that virtually every character in the movie at least once has to dismiss Mr. Lazarescu’s complaints with a reference to his drinking. He is asked about his drinking, insulted about it, chided for it, scolded for it, and kidded about it, and everything wrong with him is said to be exacerbated if not caused outright by it.

This is the one element of the film where realism is sacrificed a bit I suppose. It’s hard to imagine that everyone he encounters would be so judgmental about this one matter. It’s precisely the absurdity of it that makes it funny.

And it’s interesting how consistently it works as humor, at least for me. When it’s deepest into the movie, and he’s most pitiful, and watching his slow demise is most heartrending, I still laughed each time another doctor would smell his breath, shake his head disapprovingly and say, “Ah, I see we’ve already had a drink or two today, haven’t we Mr. Lazarescu?” It’s the kind of thing where you know it’s coming, and yet it never fails to earn an eye roll and a laugh.

No doubt it takes more patience and stamina and concentration to watch and appreciate The Death of Mr. Lazarescu than the vast majority of movies one is likely to see, certainly than just about any conventional Hollywood movie. But if you can make that effort, it’s worth it. This is an impressive, truthful, important film.

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