No matter how heartily I abuse BitTorrent, there are some exceptionally great movies I'll be years behind on if I don't catch them upon initial release. Such was the case with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, one of the earliest and most celebrated touchstones of the mid-00s ascendancy of Romanian cinema. Lazarescu (or Death; a revealing choice of shorthand?) quickly became the crossover story of 2006, lighting up best-of lists as frequently as the latest entries from Scorsese and Eastwood. I'd read about for years before I finally sat down to it on Netflix Instant this past March. I was surprised by what I saw.
Like There Will Be Blood a year later, Death benefited greatly from political timing. Its unblinking focus on a dying man left adrift in a sea of health care bureaucracy was immediately seized upon by American critics, sensing an easy parallel and a chance to ramp up the reform-now zeitgeist. The film's myriad medical officials are lost in "staunch snobbishness" and "inhuman nonsense," unsympathetic to the "rudely tendered" titular doomed soul. The system, indeed, is infested by the "selfishness of the human spirit," and the "good people are too few and too ineffectual, and...come too late." The director, Cristi Puiu, was portrayed as "intent on avenging himself against the medical profession" after his own torturous experience with post-Ceausescu health care. The New York Times took to the battlements with even greater fervor, teasing out a homeland connection in Romania's societal "ill health, which sounds awfully familiar in these post-Katrina times." The fading protagonist's full name, Dante Remus Lazarescu, practically begs for allegorical exploration, and everybody bit: DRL falls through "circles of medical hell," mistreated by the "supposed emblems of human salvation," and is ultimately left with no "Beatrice to guide him to heaven."
With the exception of the Katrina comparison, none of these are outright ludicrous conclusions, but even though (or perhaps because) I was so primed for bitter condemnation, the movie I saw was quite different. Yes, most of the doctors and nurses encountered by Lazarescu and his sole caregiver, an EMT named Mioara, come off as bitter, pompous assholes, and they certainly spend more time admonishing Lazarescu for his drinking habits than caring for him. Yet these officials are as anonymous to us as Lazarescu is to them: we're shown hints that their personal lives are falling into disrepair as they're worked almost to their own deaths, but Puiu's wandering camera unerringly returns to Lazarescu and Mioara. We are the only ones privy to their entire story, and isn't that the curse of cinema? That's why we shout to characters on screen not to go into that house, because we've already seen some skull-faced motherfucker duck in there 15 seconds previous. Of course, that sort of thing is all in fun, and is more a product of universal familiarity with genre tropes than anything specific to one film. Lazarescu is very different, and I didn't find it as easy to condemn those doctors as I do bubbly teenagers who walk into creepy abandoned houses.
These nurses and doctors fuck up, but not because they treat Lazarescu exceptionally poorly. They fail to treat him exceptionally well, but why should they do that? They haven't seen the beginning of the movie. They weren't primed, as we are, to feel wretched pity for this particular old man, or feel pride for this stubborn EMT. How many wretched old men and stubborn EMTs do you think walk through those hospital doors? It's vital that Death's trajectory careens between four different hospitals: for everyone but the audience and the two main characters, the story has to start afresh in each place.
No, the fuck-up lies in the definition of "exceptionally well" in the first place. Lazarescu explores not a failure, but a standard, and it's difficult to condemn that standard without doing so in terms of cinema: it's all so terrible because the protagonist is treated poorly. This individualist perspective is accented with broader themes in a Dardennes-like fashion, but it's still ultimately one man's death.
Is this to say one cannot properly draw pervasive lessons from this film? Hardly, but I don't think the answer lies purely in diagnosis (i.e., the Romanian health care system is fucked up, and btw, so's ours). The proper question for a film like this is one of prescription, which is where Death's true accomplishment lies. Rather than demand specific reforms (which would be nearly impossible to do well within narrative cinema), Puiu silently records every bit of multifaceted chaos, all the locked-in perspectives that in sum produce catastrophe, and asks: what the hell do we do with all this? Again, it's a distinctively cinematic approach, to watch so many angles and interests germane to health care reform debates be brought out through the vessel of one man's story. This is the material. These are the ground rules. Yes, it's terrible, but Puiu takes that as a given, not a point to prove. The question is how we transform this situation, and saving one particular man is not the answer: anecdotes can only go so far, something that every political filmmaker ought to be aware of. By allowing us to identify with one poor soul, Puiu makes the stagnant trauma real without transforming it into a dragon to slay. After several more viewings, Lazarescu reminds me of Dr. Strangelove: an ostensible black comedy that spends most of its time meticulously examining systemic breakdown. While Kubrick, however, did indeed posit the kind of scathing, polemical pessimism that critics saw in Death, Puiu has more interest in exploring the human complexities of bureaucracy. If there's a thesis statement to be teased out of this film, it's not that health care is bad. It's that fixing health care is going to be really, really hard, and as any American can testify, this film is only going to age well in those terms.