THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU directed by Cristi Puiu, written by Puiu and Razvan Radulescu, with Ion Fiscuteanu, Doru Ana, Alina Berzunteanu, Doru Boguta and Mimi Branescu. 150 minutes. Subtitled. Friday (March 31) and Sunday (April 2) as part of LOVE AND DEATH IN BUCHAREST: THE FILMS OF CRISTI PUIU at Cinematheque Ontario (317 Dundas West). See Indie & Rep Film Listings. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Cluj-Napoca, Romania -- It's still Transylvania. No matter how hip the deejays at the underground Insomnia club, no matter how stylish the young students who make this festival hum, it's hard to shake the need for a little blood and black, flapping wings.
Vampires have always been more useful as metaphor, though, which gives Cristi Puiu's astonishing film The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu extra spin here. Romanians see Christian parallels in this story of a man suffering a long night of ordeals before his death, but they also feel the political edge. This is a movie in which a heartless doctor examines a dying man and says, "Have you seen the size of his liver? It's as big as the house of parliament." Yum.
According to the Romanians I've talked to, the doctor is typical. Callousness and comedy go hand in hand here, and it's that mix that makes The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu feel so familiar to its Transylvanian audience.
But what makes it work everywhere is this director's powerfully humanist view. Puiu, who's being treated to a Cinematheque Ontario spotlight this weekend, gives his films the moral depth of Krzysztof Kieslowski, but with a sharp humour that's more Alexander Payne. In fact, Payne headed the 2005 Cannes jury that gave Puiu the prize for best film in the Un Certain Regard section.
Weeks later, Puiu picked up more prizes at the Transilvania International Film Festival. (It's real - look it up.) The morning after, he sits in a hotel lobby, clearly ravaged by celebration. He orders a cappuccino and takes a call from his wife, Anca. They're driving back to Bucharest right after the interview. That city is where he's set a planned series of six comic moral tales, including Lazarescu and his debut, Stuff And Dough.
"From the beginning," he says about Lazarescu, "you can tell that the story takes place in Bucharest. It's a different space, the southern part of Romania. The mentality of people is very strange. They're shy and aggressive at the same time. They are very clever and very lazy. They cannot believe that things can be good."
He scratches his beard for a second, then says, "This is true about Romanians in general."
But apart from that, Puiu insists, Lazarescu is barely Romanian at all. His protagonist is named Dante Remus Lazarescu, and every syllable of that name bears meaning. Lazarus and Dante carry clear parallels to the film's night journey into death. Remus, Puiu says, is "because Romulus and Remus were twins, but it was Romulus who built Rome. Remus could die. If we split human beings into a human part and a spiritual part, my character is the human part, the part that dies. He's secondary."
Then he adds, "It's like Romanians. We are like this. We're a culture on the periphery of Europe." Puiu likes a good joke at the expense of his country. This, too, is true of Romanians in general.
Puiu admits to both an instinct to dominate and a bout of hypochondria that lasted a year and a half. He's a curious mixture of sensitive intellectual and absolutist artist. At one point, he considered a six-hour real-time version of The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu.
"I am very much interested in real time because I am very much interested in life," he explains. "Was it André Bazin who said there are directors in love with life and directors in love with cinema? I am much more interested in life. I think of cinema more as a technique than an art. For me, cinema is a technique to investigate reality."
He acknowledges, though, that "reality cinema is also a convention, and you have to be careful about what you include to induce this feeling of reality. That's why I feel close to Cassavetes, Raymond Depardon and Frederick Wiseman."
The cappuccino's been drained and the sunshine has burned any spooky airs off the streets of Transylvania. Puiu makes one last observation about the reality of his films.
"We forget we are animals," he says. "I'd like to create situations that show the animal face of the human being."
THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (Cristi Puiu)
This can't be a suspense film with that title, but it still keeps you planted in your seat. Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu in a terrific performance) is an obstinate old drunk living with three cats in Bucharest. He's not feeling so good. Over the next six hours - his last, as it turns out - he endures the stations of the Romanian health care system.
Cristi Puiu takes the bones of social satire and puts spiritual meat on them. He brings you close to the physical presence of a dying man, but also insists on the complexity of his soul and his emotions. This is a humane, affecting and frequently hilarious summation of the absurdities of life.
Sure to be one of the best films of the year.