Billing The Death of Mr. Lazarescu as a comedy is a bit like telling someone that Old School is an earnest look at how men handle getting older — essentially both are true, but most definitely not on the surface. Opening with jaunty pop music, director Cristi Puiu's acclaimed dramedy throws you off from the beginning — poor 63-year-old Dante Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is suffering from headaches, vomiting and generally miserable, and as viewers meet him, he's sitting in his squalid Romanian apartment, grousing at his cat and waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
After much waiting and further deterioration, the ambulance does indeed arrive, setting Mr. Lazarescu on a bleak odyssey of discovery, one which ends just as the title suggests it might. Since much of the mystery is dissipated by the title, viewers can only watch, with dread, as the inevitable unfolds — Lazarescu's journey is one of frustration and incredulity as the search for proper medical care reveals a system taxed to the breaking point, strained beyond its capacity and fairly unable to help even the most benign patients.
Those for whom health care is a hot button topic might find themselves highly agitated by the events that transpire in Puiu's verite-infused narrative: Lazarescu is shuttled from one physician to another over the course of this endless night, arriving at one hospital only to be shunted off to a different hospital. Understandably, his health begins to rapidly worsen and as he drifts towards utter helplessness, soon finds himself stripped bare of nearly everything, his life hanging in the balance. It's worth noting that despite what could be considered a thankless role — Lazarescu is more or less an observer, rather than an active participant in the goings-on — Fiscuteanu delivers a wonderfully realized performance, one that feels genuinely alive. His work here definitely enlivens The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, drawing you in even as you fret over his character's fate.
According to IMDb, Puiu isn't done laying into the powers that be: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is the first in a series of six films titled "Stories From the Suburbs of Bucharest." His barely contained moral outrage will no doubt spill over into his future projects, fairly setting the screen ablaze with its fury — Puiu is, first and foremost, a humanist director, one whose anguish over the realities of life colors every frame of this haunting, surreal work.
As a film that transpires in the dead of night, there was a chance that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu could've suffered from abysmal image quality but fortunately, this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer isn't too bad. There are a few instances of ghosting and slight edge enhancement that suggest this disc may be a PAL port, but overall, it's a fairly solid, if grainy, visual representation of tricky material.
Shot in a documentary style, sound isn't of primary importance here, but that doesn't mean the included soundtracks are wimpy: there's a Dolby Digital 5.1, a DTS 5.1 and a Dolby 2.0 stereo on board, with the DTS edging out the Dolby Digital track in terms of warmth and clarity. Music, dialogue and sound effects are heard clearly, free of distortion or drop-out. In a curious touch, the optional English subtitles (you'll need 'em unless your Romanian is up to snuff) are blue — they're still legible, but it's quite odd to see blue subtitles.
There isn't much, but what's available is worth sifting through: director Puiu sits for a 45 minute interview, conducted in English, while American doctor Fred Berlin gives you his "Perspective on the U.S. Healthcare System," which, as expected, is just as disconcerting as Puiu's film. The film's theatrical trailer is here, as is an insert featuring a New York Times article and Cinemascope interview with Puiu, with trailers for Battle in Heaven, Hoover Street Revival, The Hidden Blade and Milwaukee Minnesota completing the disc.
There are some who will sit through this two hour, 30 minute film and be enraged by the film's seemingly anti-climactic ending. Those who feel anger should direct it at something other than the conclusion — without spoiling anything, I can say that Puiu is underlining the futility of all that's been done. It's a brutal, bittersweet finale to a film that will linger with you long after the final frames have faded. Recommended.