THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCUR
No one dies in director Cristi Puiu's second feature, but there's little doubt that by the end of the film, the Mr. Lazarescu of the title has a short time left to live. Blame it on his own habits-he's a 62-year-old suffering from ulcers who binges on alcohol-and the indifference, boredom and outright hostility of a slew of Romanian doctors and nurses. Fact is, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu isn't about a crumbling and outdated medical infrastructure-the various hospitals in the movie seem up to Western standards-but about how one patient can get lost in a system that is overburdened and stretched to its limit.
The film, which takes place over the course of one evening, opens with the shambling Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) complaining of stomach pains and a severe headache. He calls for an ambulance, then waits for it to come. And waits. While cooling his heels, he appeals to his next-door neighbor for help. The neighbor and his wife give him some pills, deride Lazarescu for his drinking and slovenly ways, then call the ambulance again.
Finally, the EMS technician arrives. She's a fifty-something woman (Luminita Gheorghiu) who examines the patient, then decides to take him to a hospital. Over the course of the next few hours, Lazarescu is shuttled back and forth between three different hospitals, where he's poked, prodded, tested, ignored, and diagnosed several different times. At one medical facility, a particularly nasty doctor spends more time berating him for his drinking habits than trying to find out what's wrong with him. At another, a pompous neurologist hollers at the female medic for daring to tell him how a previous doctor had diagnosed the patient.
It seems that Lazarescu has also chosen a particularly bad day to get sick. There's been a horrific bus crash, and the victims of the accident are taking up most of the space in Bucharest's hospitals. But Lazarescu's night of bad medical treatment isn't just a function of overcrowding. If anything, it also has to do with instantly recognizable types that seem to exist in almost every health-care system: bored technicians flirting with each other, harried doctors suffering from lack of sleep, bureaucrats obsessed with paperwork.
Puiu's film shows all this in a deliberate, documentary-like style. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu seems banal and almost boring for the first 20 minutes or so, but the gradual accumulation of detail, the quotidian elements of the long night, eventually add up to a powerful and engrossing whole. This is not the pumped-up theatrics of "ER." It is a realistic, sobering and artfully told look at one man's descent into health-care hell.