The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is perfectly named, as we spend two-and-a-half hours watching the title character's health decline. He is shuttled from one hospital emergency room to another, and if we weren't aware that we are watching his death, we might find dark humor in the events. At least one trailer presents the film as if it were a comedy:
Yes, it's easy to make a short trailer that suggests it's a very funny movie, and yes, there are moments when you will laugh. It's not a particularly sad movie. But it is always about the drawn out death of a man, and the ways in which he is constantly ignored (and in which he becomes increasingly incoherent) are less funny as the movie progresses.
Many people have noted the similarities between this film and Frederick Wiseman's documentary work, in particular Hospital. Lazarescu certainly looks like a documentary, but it doesn't hide the reality of its fictional nature. This is a carefully constructed movie with excellent writing and acting ... it's a heightened reality that removes the random feel of cinéma vérité. Because Puiu takes his time with each scene, and because the film takes place in a modified version of real time, you might think it needs an editor. But while it's long, nothing needs to be cut. We need every minute to learn about Mr. Lazarescu, and he deserves our patient attention as we watch him die.
Puiu is sympathetic to his characters, even when we wish they would act differently. No one acts out of malice. But events conspire to make it hard to act decently. It is Mr. Lazarescu's misfortune to discover how sick he is the same night that there is a huge pileup on a local freeway. Wherever he goes, the hospital is already full.
There is a running joke about his drinking. Each person he encounters sniffs his breath and assumes his ailments are based on his alcohol consumption. True or not, at the point in which we enter his life, the drinking is irrelevant. He needs to have tests done, he needs to be operated on, immediately. But people are stuck on his drinking, stuck on trying to explain his situation rather than dealing it with. The various doctors and nurses do what they can for him, but the see him as a lost cause. Which he is, physically, but whatever makes a person a person is also failing, and people are too busy to notice.
There's a catch-22 situation when the doctors decide he needs brain surgery. They can't operate without his consent, and he has reached the stage of babbling. The nurse who takes him to the various hospitals tells the doctors Mr. Lazarescu is incompetent, but the doctors, fearing lawsuits, won't operate. The nurse is told to drive around until he becomes comatose, then come back to the hospital and they will drill into his head. Mr. Lazarescu is all of us when our lives butt up against bureaucracy. And the irony (and, yes, humor) is that he only gets attention when he is unable to speak.
While the movie is specifically Romanian (it is generally considered as the beginning of the Romanian New Wave), we can all recognize the situations. As Puiu said, "This is not a Romanian tale, but a tale from Romania." I have only seen one other movie from that New Wave, but it is one of my very favorite films: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which made my list of fifty favorite films a few years back. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu isn't quite that good, but based on these two films, the Romanian New Wave would appear to be rich for discovery. #452 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #20 on the TSPDT 21st century list.