This year’s Cannes Camera d’Or winner, "The Death of Lazarescu" is an excursion into Kafkaesque despair. The titular character is a 62-year-old retired engineer living in Bucharest in a slovenly apartment with three cats as his only company. He likes to drink, despite his ulcer. He has a headache, and he’s been vomiting all day. He calls an ambulance â€” and so begins his night-long journey to find treatment.
Director Cristi Puiu describes his film as a story about "love of humanity," or, in this case, a total lack thereof, but what it actually depicts is not so much a world without empathy as one in which everyone is too preoccupied with his or her own (often considerable) concerns to invest effort in other people. Lazarescu’s neighbors enjoy lecturing him on how terrible his living conditions are, but can’t be bothered to go down to the hospital with him. On the phone, his sister only wants to know where the money he promised is. The closest to a friendly face in whole film is the weary ambulance technician who escorts Lazarescu to what turns out to be three different hospitals, but even she is only fighting to get him admitted because is he dies in her ambulance, his death will be recorded as her fault.
Puiu calls "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" inspired by both Eric Rohmer and "E.R.," and his depiction of hospitals exists in stunning contrast to that show’s swooping cameras and constant flurry of movement â€” they seem near abandoned, silent, with staff reluctant to take responsibility. Cutting sharpest are the glimpses we get of the personal lives of various nurses and doctors â€” one won’t see Lazarescu until he get through to his wife on the phone before she leaves for work, another idly talks about coworker’s wedding as they wait for him to get a scan. Their lives continue on, unaffected, regardless of whether, as we’re promised, Lazarescu dies sometime during the night. He, on the other hand, may be in his last few hours on earth, and he’s utterly disregarded.
It’s a distressing film to watch, but a masterful one. Puiu, who keep his film entirely in grim interiors, maintains a tone that’s funny and corrosive as hell, but never angry â€” he’s not setting out to rail against the system, really. No one character takes the blame (aside from what may be the most maddening part of the film, in which a doctor decides that the ambulance technician is being uppity and that he’ll teach her a lesson), or all of them do, for not stepping forward. Instead, what we’re left with is a sense of the teeming, unheeding life of the city we never see, and a reminder that we’re ultimately face death alone.
"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" will be released in March, 2006 by Tartan Films.