'The Death of Mr.Lazarescu' Review: Night Light

A look back at Cristi Puiu’s breakthrough film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu which won Un Certain Regard at Cannes and ranked #5 in New York Times: The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far. Puiu’s latest film Malkmrog will be screening at New York Film Festival later this week.

It’s September of 2020 and the heatwave has finally broken, the chill in the air seems to have sobered the fever dream of ‘quarantine summer’. Things are still surreal, absurd even, the pandemic rages on, 195,683 Americans have died thus far and thousands continue to die weekly, but things seem even direr now as schools begin to prematurely open and flu season waits in the wings. I live just a few blocks away from a large hospital which reads differently after watching Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The fact that a film that first premiered in 2005 feels so grippingly of the moment might explain why its Netflix description begins with “Amid a pandemic…” when nothing of the sort appears anywhere throughout. This line seems to be a Freudian slip from some underpaid blurb writer unwittingly inserting our current nightmare into the tragedy depicted on film.

The Death of Mr.Lazarescu tells the saga of an elderly man ferried by an ambulance and a dutiful paramedic from one hospital to the next, one doctor to the next, one test to the next, throughout a single night as the time to save him slowly slips away. Director Cristi Puiu shoots with the sparse documentary style reminiscent of Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake), yet unlike Loach, there is a tinge of gallows humor peppered throughout. This thin thread of bleak absurdism calling to mind Kafka and Dostoevsky is a hallmark of what is often referred to as the Romanian New Wave movement pioneered by Puiu.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (dir. Cristi Puiu, 2006)

The film opens on the titular Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), a widower living alone in a small Bucharest apartment with his cats. He begins to feel nauseous, calls for an ambulance, and waiting for it to arrive, walks out to his neighbor for some medication. As he sits in the hallway the lightbulb goes out, with the only light streaming through his neighbor’s open door. Lazarescu lifts himself to hit the switch and restores the light before painfully sitting back down on the stairs. This moment is an elegant microcosm of the film, Lazarescu affirming his presence in the stairwell, a statement of his existence that is mirrored over and over in the anguished repetition of his full name “Lazarescu Dante Remus” for one doctor to the next. Later in the same scene, the lights are out again, but with the neighbor’s door closed, the entire frame goes black, serving as a beautiful little metaphor for the second component of the film, the necessity, and limits of community.

This central idea is personified by paramedic Mioara (Luminița Gheorghiu) whose decisions drive the story from the moment she arrives on the scene. Much like the parade of doctors, later on, she is initially reluctant to take Lazarescu seriously or even drive him to the hospital given that he’s an alcoholic, has been drinking all day, and is now complaining of nausea and a headache. In deciding to take him in, and with no family to accompany him, Mioara takes the burden of Lazarescu’s life in her hands. Puiu delicately exposes the tug-of-war between her professional obligations and her moral ones, and this tension pulses throughout the remainder of the film.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (dir. Cristi Puiu, 2006)

In one of the sharpest scenes towards the end of the night, Lazerscu lies on the stretcher in the back of the ambulance moaning that he’s thirsty. Mioara sits by his side and chats with her partner driving. The camera begins to slowly pull in closer on this unwavering fighter on Lazarescu’s behalf, we watch her take a bottle of water from the front seat and use it to take a pill for her pain, after which she mindlessly gives the bottle back over to the front. As she does this, she continues talking with her partner as if Lazerscu isn’t there, and sure enough at this point, the camera has pulled in close enough that he no longer appears on screen.

At this moment, my frustration with Mioara’s decision not to share the water clashes with an unsettling relief to have the dying man pulled from the frame and temporarily removed from sight. With the careful and methodical repetitions stretched over the film’s runtime, Puiu channels Miora’s weariness into the viewer, and this exhaustion is reflected spectacularly in the final sequences of the film which take place in the early morning. 

Watching this film is to experience just a hint of the heart-rending weariness of paramedics and the hospital staff, and the outrage and sadness for all of the people who like Lazarescu regularly slip through the cracks. Maybe that’s the draw of passing by a hospital on a long nightly walk, especially deep into the alienation of quarantine. It’s the urge to see the relentless glow of lights splashing into the night, like a neighbors door that’s always open just a bit, the last resort, a broken system full of strangers working through the early hours to take your life in their hands.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (dir. Cristi Puiu, 2006)

The Ten Best Films of 2020​

With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.