This 153-minute snoozer was almost the death of Judge Joel Pearce.
The most acclaimed comedy of the year!
It's been a long time since I've been this bored watching a film—a film that took me two evenings to complete. Without question, it's the most bored I've ever been watching a genuinely good film. There's a keen perspective on humanity buried under the drab exterior, but it will take a patient viewer to appreciate its brilliance.
Facts of the Case
Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu, Glissando) is old, lives alone, and drinks a little too much. One day, his stomach hurts and he develops a terrible headache. Thinking it's the return of ulcer pain, he calls for an ambulance and waits. The symptoms worsen and he waits some more. His neighbors come to help, call again, and he waits. Finally, Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu, Time of the Wolf), an aging paramedic, arrives, and feels some sympathy for the lonely old man. She takes him to a hospital, only to find that the doctor shrugs him off. It will take a lot of patience and effort to get Mr. Lazarescu the care he needs in a city this cold and busy.
Title characters usually remain at the center of the film. They get the most screen time, the most lines, the most close-ups. After the initial sequences of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, our titular hero is relegated to the background, moaning on his stretcher and struggling to answer questions. Mioara becomes the focus at this point, the only person struggling on his behalf. Before the end of the film, she leaves. It is a reminder that the old man is still the focus of the story.
Both Fiscuteanu and Gheorghiu deliver impressive performances. Throughout the film, we see Mr. Lazarescu in a gradual state of decline, and it's a chilling portrayal for anyone who has watched an elderly relative slowly slip away. Mioara has to fill a lot of the time with conversation, and it always feels completely natural.
In fact, the cinema verité style of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For the most part, it's a great boon to the production, creating a heartfelt look at the process of dying. It takes 30 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, and we are forced to sit through that 30 minutes. Each of the periphery characters is in the middle of their own lives and situations, and we hear their conversations as Mr. Lazarescu is being poked and prodded. The Romanian medical world comes alive in this film, to the point that it's hard to believe this is fiction.
There's a problem, though. Thirty minutes of waiting for the ambulance to arrive means 30 minutes of uninvolved, mundane conversation between characters who don't matter to the story. At times, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is painfully, mind-numbingly dull. After a while, the stillness and realism of the background noise becomes intolerable, the snippets of conversation become annoying, and the massive gaps in the conversation become infuriating. How on earth this film came to be filed in the comedy section at all is beyond me. Perhaps I'm simply too young to understand how this crushingly sad narrative can be funny, but I didn't laugh once.
That said, I'm certainly not too young to get the point here. In so many countries around the world now, the medical system has become an industry. With an aging population (and the ability to keep the elderly alive for much longer), it has become necessary for doctors and nurses to see as many patients as possible in a short amount of time. Emergency rooms are overflowing and there are shortages of doctors. The net result is a gradual reduction of human beings to patients in the eyes of healthcare professionals. None of the doctors who see Mr. Lazarescu approach him as though he is a man. Instead, they see him as another old drunk taking up time in their busy wards.
There's also a generation gap that gives the film some tension. The older characters remember a time when they were treated like people, but the younger characters are only interested in their own busy schedules and careers. Even when they agree to take a look at our elderly protagonist, their attention is more focused on cell phone conversations, romances with co-workers, the length of their night shifts, and the medical hierarchy. The generation gap is exaggerated here, but it's rendered well enough that I felt a bit guilty for how busy I am. We are too busy, and I think my generation does get caught up in the mundane details too often. On that level, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is successful.
This disc isn't Tartan's best offering. The video transfer is soft and ugly, partly due to the natural florescent lighting, partly due to its being poorly mastered from a PAL source. The image jitters, colors bleed, and there are some ugly combing effects.
The sound transfer is better. Both Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks are offered. Since most of the sound comes from the center channel, the fancy sound formats are basically unnecessary. Still, the dialogue is surprisingly clear considering the picture's rough documentary style.
There are a couple special features on the disc. Interviews with the director and with American doctor Fred Berlin explain how this film relates to the American medical system.
In some ways, it's hard to recommend a film this long and slowly paced. I know I will never watch it again. I can't imagine many people enjoying this epic 153 minutes. While those who are specifically interested in the topic may want to give it a try, everyone else should probably take a pass. I understand why it's gotten rave reviews from many critics, but still find it hard to get excited about the movie.
I was pretty tired of Mr. Lazarescu's story by the end, but he's been through enough. It's time to let him go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
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