Death of Mr. Lazarescu, The (US - DVD R1)
Gabe reviews his 100th DVD, and finds this one hits a little too close to home...
Mr. Lazarescu lives in a run down flat in Romania, with three or four flea-infested cats. He's got a bit of a drinking problem, some ugly leg ulcers, and has gone through a surgery or two. When Mr. Lazarescu wakes up with a severe headache, and finds that he can't keep anything down, he calls for an ambulance. The ambulance takes its sweet time, and Lazarescu wanders over to his neighbours for some assistance. When they call the ambulance back, it finally shows, and the rest of Lazarescu's short life is spent shuttling from hospital to hospital in search of proper medical care. It seems nobody wants to deal with a sick old man with whiskey on his breath tonight.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (as defined by Webster) is: a psychological reaction that occurs after experiencing a highly stressing event (as wartime combat, physical violence, or a natural disaster) outside the range of normal human experience and that is usually characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the event. Whether this film will cause such a reaction is dependant solely on the recent events in the life of the viewer.
I'm sure that a woman recently raped has an added aversion to a film like I Spit On Your Grave, and I've heard that Vietnam vets have real trouble dealing not only with films strictly about the conflict, but also from-the-shadows war films like Cameron's Aliens. The plight of being ill may not compare to these, but the feelings can be equally strong, and it took me two sittings to get through this film.
Sometimes a film is a little too real for us to enjoy. Personal history and feelings can make anyone relate passionately to a film others do not, and sometimes makes us resent what others loved. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu may have been too personal for me to act as a valid source of constructive criticism, and I'll warn you of that right now.
I've spent the last two and a half years in and out of a hospital (I'm on the six month schedule these days, so thankfully much more ‘out’ than ‘in’), and no matter how professional and caring my doctors and nurses were, the experience was nothing short of traumatic. Watching a likable and frail character die in the halls of these sterilized pre-morgues in such a realistic manner brought back too many awful memories. This film is so utterly realistic I even began to smell those corridors, those plastic gloves, those sanitized sheets, the stench of illness. This is not a Hollywood hospital, with cool blue lighting, sexy, well-groomed and infinitely passionate doctors, or bizarre medical inflictions. This is the real thing, in a struggling country that hasn't the money, time, or patience to deal with everyday illness.
I also may have identified a little too much with our main character, Mr. Lazarescu. He shares a passing resemblance with my Grandfather, whom I lost almost exactly one year ago, rather suddenly. Papa didn't die alone, nor did he live in squalor, but I wasn't there to see him in his last months, and I didn't see him die. For all my overactive imagination knows it happened just like this.
I don't want to come off as a whiny brat here, but I think my feelings should be clear from the offset; my experience with this film is probably not the average one.
The question is, can I put aside these irrational feelings, and repeat the Last House on the Left mantra, ‘it's only a movie, it's only a movie, it's only a movie....’? Or maybe I shouldn't. Maybe this should be a sort of catharsis for someone like me. My most clinical reading of the film is that it is a very good one. Director Cristi Puiu has gone to great lengths to create utter realism here, with his shaky camera, minimal cutting, real life dialogue, and some of the most believable actors you'll ever see. It's like some jerk heard that his aging neighbour was feeling very ill, and decided to film his slow and discerning death. Puiu makes the viewer an active member in the drama, and even if the feeling can be an uncomfortable one, the success is undeniable.
The film is toted as a black comedy, though had I not been told that I probably wouldn't have thought for a second to categorize the film as such. Fight Club is a black comedy, Election is a black comedy, even Happiness is a black comedy. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is simply real life. The people one meets in real life can be pretty sarcastic and dry, and I know from experience that doctors and nurses can be the driest and most sarcastic on the block. The problem is that when one assumes the film's title is an indication of its outcome, one gets the feeling that the caretakers are actually just being unnecessarily mean to Lazarescu. The only real dark irony I found in the film was the fact that Lazarescu has alcohol on his breath, which leads every specialist to the same initial conclusion.
At about the middle of the film I stopped feeling afraid and started to get pissed off. I know this is a fictitious re-enactment, but the utter lack of concern for Lazarescu's well being really started to get to me. Though the film is about two and a half hours long it really gets moving once Lazarescu leaves his house for the first hospital. If properly motivated, one can run quite an effective emotional gambit while watching the film. When I realized I'd just sat through an hour and a half of hospital deliberation without checking the clock I realized that the film was truly special, and it wasn't just my personal history getting the best of me.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is shot like a documentary, on a low budget utilizing only locations and location lighting. It doesn't look great, but it’s not supposed to. The DVD is anamorphically enhanced, and has very little digital noise or compression issues. The prevalent grain and occasional colour inconstancies can only be blamed on the source material, and had there been too much attempted correction here the film may've lost some of its realism.
The audio follows the suit of the video. For the most part this is a mono film, but Tartan has still done their best to mix things into effective DTS and Dolby Digital tracks. There is some ambient sound, such as hospital patrons, passing cars, etc, but the surround channels are mostly inactive. The only instance I noticed of a real sound system work out was during the scenes where Lazarescu goes to his neighbours for assistance. Someone in his apartment complex can be heard listening to very loud and bassy music.
There aren't a lot of extras on this disc, but they managed to answer most of my questions. The director interview is very informative, and a fine substitute for an audio commentary, as Cristi Puiu has a tendency to ramble. The film was a product of three inspirations, states Puiu. The first cause came when Puiu decided to make a series of low-budget, independent films in his native Romania, sort of like his own version of Denmark's Dogma 95 totem. The second inspiration came when he developed a vile but relatively harmless syndrome that landed him in a hospital. After his stay he developed a severe case of hypochondria. The final inspiration came from an actual news story involving the death of an elderly Romanian man who was sent away from every hospital in town and left on the side of the road by a distraught EMT.
The follow up interview with Dr. Fred Berlin gives an invaluable American professional's perspective on the film. Berlin makes a good case for standardized health care, and is sure to note that America's health care system, though flawed, has improved over the years. He seems to honestly think that the film would make a good learning tool for increasingly warn down and apathetic doctors in every country. I kind of wished he'd taken a little more definitive stance against the problems of the US health care system, but understand that he probably wouldn't want his comments on a foreign film DVD to bite him on the ass later in his professional career.
The disc is completed with a series of Tartan USA trailers.
I took this film very personally, and can't guarantee that other viewers will get as much out of it as I did, but this is an amazing little motion picture. If you're looking for a good time, stay away, I'd even say that those in search of a black comedy should stay away. The only joy one will get out of this in the end is the satisfaction of watching something with real merit. I suppose the young guys out there can also have the satisfaction of looking at impossibly beautiful young Romanian nurses and doctors, but most of them aren't acting very lovable. The DVD isn't anything too special, but the features are meaty enough, and an over the top A/V presentation may've actually proved detrimental to the spirit of the film.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 12th September 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 Romanian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Romanian
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Interview with the Director, Interview with Dr. Fred Berlin, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Cristi Puiu
Cast: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Gabriel Spahieu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Florin Zamfirescu, Clara Voda, Adrian Titieni
Genre: Comedy and Drama
Length: 153 minutes
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