I am fascinated by various film movements, and one movement I have been very interested in exploring is the Romanian New Wave, which started around the early 2000s, and developed quite a reputation for being pitch black comedies defined for their audacity and social messages. Romania is a country that went through quite a lot in the last half century, so it makes sense that the films made after the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu ended in the late 1980s would be powerful in their own way, because the best kinds of art movements are those in response to social problems.
There are two filmmakers that stand at the forefront of the Romanian New Wave since the mid to early-2000s – Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu. I was absolutely floored with Mungiu’s second feature film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile), one of the most bitterly cynical and terrifyingly shocking films I have ever seen, and I knew when watching this film that I was not dealing with just any other film. It was only now that I managed to track down a film by Cristi Puiu, after a quite a while of seeking it out. The film I chose to introduce myself to Puiu’s filmmaking was arguably his magnum opus, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (Moartea domnului Lăzărescu), one of the most excrutiatingly brilliant films I’ve ever seen, and one that proves that many people are ignoring the pure wonder that exists within Romanian cinema.
The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is about Dante Remus Lăzărescu (Ioan Fiscuteanu), a 63-year-old widower who one day wakes up to find himself feeling very ill – he has a headache and he has been throwing up all day. That evening, he decides to call an ambulance, and seeks help from his neighbours (Doru Ana and Dana Dogaru), who just brush off his requests for help as him reacting badly to his alcoholism – and even when the compassionate nurse and paramedic Miora (Luminița Gheorghiu) arrives, she thinks these are just the complaints of an old drunkard – but when it becomes clear that something is seriously wrong, they set out for the hospital – and moving between four different hospitals, it becomes clear that no one wants to treat a man who has destroyed his own body. What follows is an odyssey between the bureaucracy that exists within our world, and the problems with a capitalist society.
One part of The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu that really stood out to me were the performances. Ioan Fiscuteanu is utterly remarkable as the titular character, and right from the beginning, he takes an otherwise dull and standard character and gives him a rare humanity that doesn’t exist within many of these roles. There is absolutely nothing special or remarkable about Mr. Lăzărescu – he is really just an old man without any special qualities – but yet we cannot help but love his character and connect emotionally with his journey.
Luminița Gheorghiu is a big part of what makes this film great, because she is as equally vital to this story as Fiscuteanu. Her performance as the compassionate nurse is beautiful, complex and touching. Her character has a wonderful tenacity and she truly is a remarkable figure in a very bleak film. The rest of the cast is composed of smaller performances that aren’t on screen for more than a scene or two, but they are all memorable and contribute to this film. I can’t pinpoint a favourite from the cast but the gaggle of nurses and doctors present throughout this film all contribute something very special to it.
The Romanian New Wave is notable for how bleak the films can often be. Many of the films have been noted for being absolutely nihilistic and minimalistic – and The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu certainly fits that bill. It takes place over a few hours, and it feels like a real journey – there are no tricks or conventions that would make this a standard cinematic experience – it is a rough, raw and explicit statement on one event that might not be significant in the grand scheme of things, but in the context of this film, it is certainly of paramount importance. The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is a realist text to a fault, and I absolutely love how it manages to be so intimate but yet so broad and emcompassing of so many themes.
The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is a film about a man on his deathbed being driven from hospital to hospital, being rejected from being taken care of and slowly dying as the audience watches him fade into someone who is about to take his last breath – and its a comedy, believe it or not. It might not be a comedy that will elicit loud roars of laughter, but when it comes to being a complex and bitterly dark satire of humanity, few films do it better than The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, a truly remarkable piece of dark comedy that proves that even the most difficult subjects can be funny (in their own way). There is absolutely nothing funny about the situation, which happens to people everyday, it is rather the way this film frames those situations, and the humour that arises out of the various characters that make this a subversive comedy. Just please don’t watch The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu expecting to laugh – you’ll actually feel stone-cold depressed when this film ends, because there are very few dark comedies in existence that are this utterly bleak. If Franz Kafka wrote ER, it would certainly be The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu.
I noticed something about The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu – it is rampant with some subversive symbolism. It seems to me that this may very well be a retelling of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, in some ways. First of all, the main character is named Dante, a pretty obvious allusion to the author of the epic poem. Secondly, he goes on a journey to various hospitals, with his condition becoming worse and worse as it progresses, much like Dante’s descent into the various Circles of Hell. He is undertaking his own descent into an internal Hell. It helps that he is guided by someone who actually understands (and much like Virgil, Dante’s guide, Mioara has undertaken this journey several times). The view of the Romanian medical system here is utterly nightmarish and for someone in the situation of our protagonist, it does appear to look like Hell. Smaller references like the fact that the protagonist has a brother-in-law named Virgil (as I mentioned above, the same name is shared by the guide in Inferno) makes me think this is a modern realist odyssey.
The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is an incredibly long film – clocking in at 154 minutes, it runs nearly three hours in length – and despite being a long film, it doesn’t drag for a single moment. It is undeniably overwhelming at times, and it can feel a bit daunting to undertake this challenge – but it is a brilliant use of the duration, because there is not a single moment in The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu that is void of life or nuance. It is an ultimately rewarding exercise for those that wish to undertake it, and even if I felt myself a bit terrified by the running length, this film just flew past at a rapid and deliberate pace.
The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is a fantastic film – complex, beautifully constructed and led by a duo of remarkable performances. It is bleak and unforgivingly sad, and it will leave you cold and with a bleak outlook on life. It is one of the more extraordinary films I’ve seen, and it just continues to help feed my hunger for exploring the wonderful and varied world of Romanian cinema, which I can’t wait to do, because there is clearly something in this movement that doesn’t exist in any other nation’s cinema, and there is something unique about the Romanian New Wave that makes it just so damn wonderful. The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is great piece of that movement and I can’t wait to explore more of Puiu’s filmography, as well as those of his contemporaries.