In an age of Ultron and Infinity Wars, it’s refreshing to witness a story that’s about as unfantastic and unmarvelous as a bit of spat up blood.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is referred to as a “black comedy” on its promotional packaging, but it must take a more skilled and subtle comedian than I to draw much humor out of the film. Perhaps it appears more humorous to someone not well acquainted with modern medicine, for whom the entire story arc is not a fantastical comedy of errors, but just another sequence of events, albeit filtered through an inefficient and chronically unprofessional system.
I love movies that show me something in a new light. That’s usually not the same thing as something amazing. At first, Lazarescu would not seem to be showing me anything new. Its style stays rooted in the ordinary: hand held camera, natural lighting, actors who look like (and most likely are) real people. It doesn’t glamorize. It doesn’t wallow. True, the internal medicine doc, the neurologist, the radiologist, the resident, and the neurosurgeon are more callous than they would likely be, but perhaps not by that much; they are not exaggerated out of all probability.
So what does Lazarescu show? What’s new? Nothing really. An unspectacular old man churned through the medical system. A sequence of events that moves forward slowly and inexorably, punctuated by sudden crises. A stagnant existence drifting outward and jumbled through brief rapids on its way out. Viewers who see Lazarescu only as a critique of the medical system only see half the picture. The doctors are caught up in their own world, but although they could address some of his illnesses if they paid more attention to him, they can’t really save him. Lazarescu’s illness is terminal and as he slips into dysarthria and incoherence, there is no inner cosmic glow or last minute superhuman save. No climactic showdown with death, guns raised.
And that’s what’s new, or made new again. It’s a glimpse of what we already know but rarely get a chance to see: the whole slow wake of lonely old men and women who drift slowly toward death with unspectacular resigned patience. What we know we will also do as our enfeebled minds attempt to relive decades-old superhero movies. We generally only see bits and pieces. We generally ignore Lazarescus as much as the medical system does while we pursue our fantasies. This is the ordinary that Lazarescu makes new again for us.
The New York Times listed “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” as the fifth best movie of the 21st Century. This reinforces my belief that film criticism is far more groupthink than artistry.
I must stress, the movie is not bad, it’s just not genius. To me, it felt more like an incomplete experiment in melding uncut documentary footage with a narrative plot. Its winking and cheeky allusions hint that the filmmaker intended there to be more structure than he delivered. The main character is named Dante and he descends into chaotic realms. His last name is Lazarus but he’s not being raised from the dead. The last scene has a nurse headed off-screen to look for a Dr. Virgil.
Mentioning this emphasis on the names will make the movie seem more contrived than it is. In truth, the plot is intentionally flat. The director wanted to utilize boredom as an effect. But intentional boredom stretching out a movie to three hours is a one-trick pony, and there’s a reason most filmmakers don’t ride it into Cannes.
The key elements of the film’s success are the exoticness of its Romanian setting combined with the dullness of its editing, which makes it alluringly inaccessible, and allows critics a tabula rasa to scrawl their own thoughts upon. If the exact same movie were in English, no critic would give it the time of day, though perhaps film students might study its experimental structure and maybe it might become a cult classic among medical professionals who understand the world that it evokes.