“Hello! And do I have a wonderful comedy lined up for us tonight!” my friend David greeted me as I arrived for movie night last night — it was his turn to pick the film so he was typically over-excited. “It’s a comedy about the Romanian health-care system called ‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu” and its meant to be amazing. Come on in and let’s have a laugh!”
If this is a Romanian comedy then I dread to think what their tragedies are like because ‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’ (2005) is easily the most depressing, exhausting, savagely bleak film I’ve seen this year. It’s a very well made film with a strong point to make and clear vision but I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I enjoyed it or was even able to tolerate it because I never, ever want to watch this movie again.
‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’ is about precisely that — the death of a Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu as he is pin-balled about the nightmare of the Romanian health care system as though Kafka had written an episode of ‘Casualty’. He’s an elderly man who lives alone with his cats and is prone is excessive drinking. He complains of head and stomach pains. An ambulance is called. Mr Lazarescu is taken away and we follow the poor guy as he is taken from one hospital to another throughout the course of the night in vain attempts to have him treated.
The medical system is a bureaucratic hell compounded by the fact a multi-vehicle crash on the motorway has flooded the emergency services with patients. The longer it takes for Mr Lazarescu to be seen by a doctor the shorter we know he has to live. We soon realise it’s not a race against time but a case of witnessing of the inevitable.
What’s initially striking about ‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’ is how aggressively un-cinematic it is, the constantly moving (sickeningly so at times), hand-held camera stripping away artifice like a dying person sheds dignity to stick with the “realism” of it all. The experience is less like watching a movie and more that somebody popped-up with a camcorder and filmed an old man dying. It’s impressive and dedicated film-making by everyone involved but it’s a bludgeoning experience.
Fortunately it’s leavened by some comedy, right? Well, that depends on your definition of humour because, technically, there is comedy here but it’s understated to the point of being almost theoretical. There are almost homeopathic doses of it scattered throughout and embedded so deeply into the bleak fabric of the material that whether you laugh or not is going to be very much down to personal taste (I never came close to cracking a smile once; my friend David was laughing his ass off next to me throughout).
‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’ is an impressive and harrowing film shot in a dedicated vérité style. If that’s your bag you’ll love it. Personally I’ve spent the last two week watching nothing but the comedies of Sturges, Lubitsch and Wilder so the contrast was too much of a punch to the guts. Plus, there’s only so much realism I can take before my mind flees to the hills of escapism (I’m an existential coward but very much aware of it) so I was ground and worn down by the experience.
But I guess that’s the point of ‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’ and if watching the film was a draining experience then god only knows what it’s going to be like when I have to go through this for myself for real and in person. Something we all, ultimately, have to do.
Right, where’s the Lubitsch because I need a emergency dose of it, stat.