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Thursday August 03 2006

Last week I went to the cinema, to see a Romanian film called The Death of Mr Lazarescu.  You can get a pretty good idea of what it is about by reading this guy on the subject, somebody called “Quintin”:

Although I was impressed by Puiu’s debut, I was not prepared for this second feature, an explosion and an exercise in grandeur. Played by Ion Fiscuteanu, often on his back, Lazarescu Dante Remus is a drunken widower who is lonely, retired, smelly, bad tempered, and surrounded by ugly cats and stupid neighbours. One day, he wakes up feeling ill, with a headache and stomach pain. He will end his journey early the next morning lying unconscious, prepared to undergo an operation that won’t save him, after entering four different hospitals in the outskirts of Bucharest and having his stubbornness matched by the most sinister bureaucrats of the Romanian medical profession.

With its endless night that takes two-hours-and-34 minutes in sordid apartments and nightmarish hospitals - most of the scenes are shot in so-called real time, all handheld - The Death of Mr. Lazarescu cannot be described as light. But the film is far from being dull or heavy-handed due to the fabulous, complex, and intriguing construction of slopes that accumulate to an overwhelming effect, even as these slopes cleverly differ. Every doctor, every nurse, every part of every hospital is different, and the multiple portrait of a monster of a thousand faces . . .

Had I been watching The Death of Mr Lazarescu on the telly, I wouldn’t have lasted more than about a minute.  The first half hour or so is excruciatingly dull and ugly.  Mr Lazarescu is ill, and throws up.  His equally ugly neighbours, after trying to stay out of it, get involved.  Mrs Neighbour (admittedly not quite as ugly as her ugly husband and Mr Lazarescu) makes moussaka, which she considers to be the solution to all problems.  The cats, who show little affection to Mr Lazarescu and just complain about the food and service, stink.  Mr Neighbour sits down in vomit.  And so on.  The fact that lots of real life is dull and ugly is no reason to deliberately seek out the dull and the ugly, and I would have switched over or off, to something livelier and prettier, in other words to just about anything, had I not been in an unswitch-off-able or -over-able cinema, with friends who would have been embarrassed had I left.  Besides, I’d paid my nine pounds fifty.


But as the film progressed, it got prettier.  Something that the other critics I have read have not commented upon is that the medics in this movie, unlike Mr Lazarescu and his neighbours who occupy the first few scenes, are often implausibly good looking.  Several of them are clearly film actors, not medics at all.  They are only pretending.  At least two of the lady medics are angelically beautiful, and Mr Lazarescu’s faithful para-medical ambulance lady who accompanies him on all his journeys was also, clearly, very easy on the eye when younger.

But the result for me was not that my disbelief fell to the ground with a bump.  Rather did I find myself realising that this is far more than a documentary trundle around and through some mere hospitals.


My mind filled not with plans to reform the Romanian health service by contracting it out to the private sector, but with religious parallels like Christ’s last journey with the cross.  The film mutates from documentary drabness to transcendence, and becomes a story about a thoroughly mortal man descending into a medical purgatory, but tended by angels, rather than by what you suspect actual Romanian medics of looking like.

The review that I quoted from above, for all of its egotism (it starts with lots of personal and self-promoting stuff – like he’s some kind of damn blogger), and its film school pretentiousness ("signifiers"), is well worth reading, I think.  The guy at least gets that this is not some shallow attack on bureaucracy, but rather a universal story, concerning that which we must all undergo, one way or another.

In addition to the beautiful actor thing, I also dissent from what many critics say in that I do not think that Mr Lazarescu’s medical treatment was by any means completely appalling.  By the end of the film, we know exactly what is wrong with Mr Lazarescu, and he is about to undergo a quite elaborate operation which will only prolong his life a little, which I would say constitutes quite good medical treatment, wouldn’t you?  I can imagine far, far worse medical treatment than this, both in Romania and from the British NHS, treatment in which Mr Lazarescu gets nowhere near to being saved and is just left to die, on his own, with no para-medic lady to speak for him, and no CT scan to tell either the doctors or us what the hell is the problem.

On the contrary, Mr Lazarescu’s ordeal by repeated ambulance journey is caused by the fact that he is at least getting some attention, rather than none.  Throughout the film, Mr Lazarescu is suffering from slowly worsening headache, bad at the beginning, brainsplitting by the end.  And the Romanian medical system gives him just enough attention to make his last few hours of life a living hell. 

I suspect that Mr Lazarescu himself is being presented to us as somehow the personification of present day Romania and its woes.  He has served his country well, as an engineer if I remember the relevant snatch of talk right.  Now luckier young people are not being quite as nice to him as they should, or maybe The System isn’t.  (It amounts to the same thing.) Maybe I’m reading too much into it there, but I suspect that Romanian audiences would also have received that kind message.

The idea of Mr Lazarescu as some kind of universal archetype - Man, rather than just some old bloke who drank too much, is reinforced (here I again agree with Quintin), by the constant repetition of his name, “Lazarescu, Dante Remus”, every time another form is filled in.  Lazarescu, Lazarus.  Dante’s inferno.  Remus, the junior partner in the founding of Rome, and the one who, you suspect (classical scholars may even know), did most of the work while Romulus got most of the glory by naming the place after himself.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu also reminds me of an old comedy sketch I saw, in which a northern comic plays a fireman answering the phone at a fire station.  The fireman knows that there is a fire at the other end of the phone, but he just doesn’t act quickly enough.  He loses vital bits of paper.  ("It was here.  I had it a moment ago, now where did I put it?” etc. etc.) And what gives it all an extra dimension of hilarity is the fact that in his own bumbling way, the fireman is in a hurry, and is well aware that as a result of his faffing about, the fire is getting worse.  ("It’ll be quite bad.  Your fire.  Bi’ now.")

It’s the same with these expert Romanian medics, the cream of the medical crop of Bucharest.  They are not incompetent.  Just exhausted and overloaded, but despite that they methodically work out what is wrong with Mr Lazarescu, and the world “urgent” starts to be used more and more.  Personal favours are called in by doctor A to get things moving by getting doctor B to fit Mr Lazarescu in for a scan.  “Yes”, says the guy who operates the scanning machine which finally supplies the correct diagnoses (Mr Lazarescu has at least two life threatening things wrong with him), “this is pretty bad.  He needs an operation.  Soon.” The fire will be quite bad.  By now.  The joke is the languidly academic manner in which this diagnosis is supplied, by a man who is fully aware that he is pronouncing a death sentence and that it is only a matter of time before death overtakes the man, and also a matter of time whether they can save his life, in time, or not, but who is just too busy and too tired to move any quicker than he does, or than his cumbersome scanning machine can.  (Mr Lazarescu insists, first time around, on being unstrapped so that he can go to the lavatory, which he is eventually allowed to do, at the cost of yet more delay.) Other not so accurate guesses have earlier been suggested, notably by the paramedical lady who accompanies Mr Lazarescu on his journeyings.

Thus it is that this film is not only slow; it has to be slow.  The slow, methodical manner in which the medical machine of Bucharest gradually sorts out, in among with dealing with a major coach crash, what is wrong with Mr Lazarescu, and then slowly, by trial and error, finally comes up with a hospital willing and able to do the necessary, is the point.  It all has to take an hour longer than a regular movie.  American TV medics, all rushing about in a frenzy of energetic activity, and all focussing unswervingly on only the one case, would have been no good at all for the purposes of the creator of this film.

Later Mr Lazarescu falls foul of a doctor who insists on written consent, which Mr Lazarescu’s addled brain is no longer in a fit state to give.  So, Dr Jobsworth (backed up by his angelic looking assistant) shuttles him on to another hospital.  These doctors are actually rather bad, but even their absurdity is rooted in a good idea, namely consent, just a good idea stupidly applied.  And it’s not their fault.  If they operate without Mr Lazarescu’s consent, when he was still conscious enough to give it, they’ll be in trouble.  They may be rather too concerned with their own status, and not really bothered enough with Mr Lazarescu’s circumstances, but they have been working very hard, and are entitled to be a bit lethargic and snappy, I would say.  They are rather pompous with the paramedical lady, but I expect they’ve had it up to here with idiot ambulance drivers thinking they know what’s what.

That paramedical lady, by the way, the one who looks after Mr Lazarescu for the bulk of the film (played, I’m pretty sure, by Luminita Gheorghiu), is likewise not evidence of bad medical treatment, but on the contrary of rather good medical treatment.  She only leaves Mr Lazarescu moments before his operation.  Does the NHS supply you with a devoted individual carer like that?  I hope so for when my ordeal by medicine finally gets under way, but I doubt it.

Finally, Mr Lazarescu is prepared for his operation by being shaved, in a way that looked very real to me, and to have involved the real hair of the amazingly good actor (Joan (? -Ion?) Fiscuteanu), who played him, and to have nothing to do with wigs or make-up, and then . . .


. . . comes one of the best deaths I have seen in the cinema.

Usually, when someone dies cinematically, you see the life drain out of their body and maybe their head fall sideways.  If the person who has died is vaguely important, you see other people working out that he has maybe died, and perhaps doing things like pressing down rhythmically on his chest or blowing air down his throat, to try to revive him, glancing anxiously at medical equipment with a horizontal green line on it, etc.

But in this film, the death scene was done quite differently.  One moment Mr Lazarescu was lying on the bed naked, his head shaved, waiting to be operated on, and then, just as we were about to learn what then happened, the projectionist had a catastrophe and the film completely stopped.

But then, music, credits, and that was that.  The projectionist’s catastrophe is deliberate.  No reactions from anxious medics.  No weeping relatives, or in Mr Lazarescu’s case rather relieved relatives.  Just The End.

There is, though, one small “reform” which the film does imply might usefully be introduced.  The doctors all have mobile phones, which they make much use of for personal purposes.  Mr Lazarescu might have been saved if the medics of Bucharest had made just that little bit more use of these phones professionally, by ringing round to see where it made sense to send Mr Lazarescu, before they sent him there.

I and my friends all used our mobile phones to make sure we met up speedily and in time, to see this film.  A tad more of that kind of communication might have made at least a temporary difference for Mr Lazarescu.

But don’t kid yourself that this is what this movie is really about.  Lazarescu, Dante Remus, is going to die eventually, no matter what any doctors may do, as are we all.  This film is not a political tract about healthcare reform.  It is a meditation upon the inevitable.

I’m glad I started to watch it, and I’m glad I had to finish watching it.

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