I can never really figure out just how the foreign-language film competition at the Academy
Awards works. I know that panels of judges have to view a certain number of films and then
there's some arcane manner in which the votes are tabulated. Each year, the five finalists
are announced and sometimes later in the year, representative films from the countries get
picked up for distribution and released. And then I see some of these movies and scratch my
head and wonder "Why?" "Why didn't the Academy voters select this movie over _________
[fill in the blank]?" This year, it's difficult to believe that the distinguished members of the
nominating committee overlooked
THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, a gem from Romanian
filmmaker Cristi Puiu. With this, only his second feature, Puiu moves up the ranks as one of
the most promising movie makers in 21st Century World Cinema.

     The director cites as one of his major influences the great French director Eric Rohmer
whose films eschew pure action and instead concentrate on the accumulation of small details
and literate dialogue to tell their stories. Puiu applies something of the same approach in this
movie which he has announced as the first in a series of a half dozen features he is calling
"Stories from the Bucharest Suburbs" and dealing with various forms of love.

     The theme of
THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU is compassion. The title character
(portrayed by veteran actor Ion Fiscuteanu) is a feisty and irascible 62-year old widower
who lives alone with three cats in a rundown apartment. As the film opens, he is unwell,
having suffered a headache for several days. Now his stomach is bothering him, and he is
convinced the pain is related to ulcer surgery he underwent 14 years ago. Finally driven by
the pain, he telephones for an ambulance and waits. Initially he is rebuffed by the dispatcher
when the woman learns he has been drinking. Indeed, that becomes one of the recurring
motifs in the movie, during which relatives, his neighbors, nurses and doctors nag Lazarescu
over his alcohol intake.

     Eventually medical help arrives and Lazarescu falls into the custody of the 55-year old
nurse, Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorhiu). Once she gets him into the ambulance and
takes him to the hospital, she is sure her job will be done. Fate, however, has other things
in mind for both. There was a major accident (off screen) that has flooded the city's emergency
rooms leaving no room for a man with a condition that most physicians feel was brought
on by alcohol consumption. Indeed, as Lazarescu is shuttled from hospital to hospital and
browbeaten by various residents, his fate becomes sealed. Americans may feel they
have a medical system that is flawed, but after seeing this film, I know I had a better
appreciation for emergency room personnel.

     Puiu has crafted a journey into hell (it's no coincidence that the title character's full
name is Dante Remus Lazarescu). Over the course of a very long night, as he gets
progressively sicker, the only person to show him any tenderness and compassion is
Mioara. At first, it's part of her job, but as the hours drag on and the doctors become
more and more dismissive of the old man, she becomes his defender -- even to the point
of suffering verbal abuse from overworked and tired residents and surgeons.

     
THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU is a masterful achievement. While it is a bit
slow going at the start, if you stick with it, it pays off in amazing and thought-provoking
ways.


                     Rating:                        A-
                     MPAA Rating:           Rated R for language and brief nudity
                     Running time:            153 min.


                                     Viewed at Film Forum
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
(Moartea domnului Lazarescu)
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.