An Ode to Mortality


If there’s a tougher sell than a Romanian movie by a hitherto unknown director, it’s a Romanian movie by an unknown director that takes two and half hours to tell the tale of a 62-year-old pensioner’s final trip to the hospital. The second feature by 39-year-old ex-painter Cristi Puiu is an ode to mortality, albeit not without a certain grim humor. (Call it deadpan.) Dante Lazarescu, a retired engineer, living alone with his cats and the bottle, wakes with an unfamiliar headache and a bad stomach, and after a day of futile self-medication, calls the local equivalent of 911. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is highly scripted but shot like a documentary. As filmmaking, it’s a tour de force, with Puiu successfully simulating—or rather, orchestrating—the institutional texture of a Frederick Wiseman vérité. The ensemble is constantly talking; when not squeezed into an impossibly tight corner, the camera is in near continual motion. All the talk about smells makes one grateful that the movie’s verisimilitude doesn’t extend to aroma-rama. We are spared the issue of pain as well—at least Lazarescu isn’t complaining about it. In the most profound sense, his death is our spectacle. Life is for the living; however large the crowd or busy the ward, the dead and the dying are on their own.