If you ask me, this is a horror movie. Though it’s not. It’s not a comedy either or any such nonsense you might’ve divined from the official poster (how and why someone decides to market this as a comedy is beyond me; it’s almost like saying Cameron’s Avatar is core example of Italian neorealism). Don’t dwell too much on the horror part either. It’s just me freaking over any narrative that includes real-life hospitals and sicknesses. Psychosomatic that’s what I am. In a sense, though, Moartea domnului Lazarescu is a horror. It’s just not of the kind with big baddies and half-naked blondes running around. It’s more of an existential horror that can, under right circumstances, seem utterly ridiculous. I guess that’s where the comedy part comes in play. To a Western audience this presentation of health service system in Romania might seem a bit over the top. Except it’s not. You’ve probably read about it by now (this isn’t exactly fresh material) so I’ll not talk about it at length. I’ll just say that it’s spot on and if some things seem incredulous to you, count yourself lucky that you don’t know any better.
Cristi Puiu’s movie was a big international hit. At least it was amongst the festival audience. One should be careful with festival audiences and their taste. Too much unwatchable crap comes from that context and from the amount of critical praise it receives one could think that no one on the Earth has made anything better. Ever. I remember being on one festival just like that back in 2005 where this movie was showing. Nothing could drag me to the screening then and there. I mean, when you put summertime and half-naked girls (not of a horror variety) prancing around on one side and almost three hour long movie about a guy dying in some godforsaken, devastated land my reasons become obvious. My girlfriend was of a different persuasion so she went to see it. Afterwards she – a very down to earth kind of a gal – said that I should’ve come, that it was marvelous. So I came. Nine years later. After I’ve seen many movies from the Romanian new wave “genre” that Moartea spawned. After all this time, only thing I have to say is that she was right. Like usual. That shouldn’t surprise me anymore.
One thinks of Kafka when watching this. One thinks of Camus and the whole concept of absurdity that once upon a time held entire Europe in awe. One is not wrong if he thinks that though one should think much more. Moartea is not just about the absurdities of health-care system in Romania, nor is just a movie about the old guy dying helplessly while people around him argue over bureaucratic details, nor is it a feel-good movie in a thank-god-I-don’t-live-there kind of way. Amongst many things that this movie actually is (i.e. represents; i.e. talks about) the aspect of the State going more than dysfunctional is the one that I find most interesting. Once again, Romanian background is just that. A background. The type of background that anchors these images deep into the cesspool of Reality but background nevertheless. However rewarding the local context might be, it still vanes under the sheer power of metaphor that has been executed more than well. In this sense, Puiu’s skill is something to behold and take hectic notes about. Lazarus himself works on at least two levels. One can read it as a metaphor of ex-communist state of particularly nasty variant whose time has finally come (this is closer to a contextual Romanian reading) or one can read it as an metaphor of a person left in the power of unknowable, incomprehensible, almost mystic in its unique bizarreness, all-encompassing System that will, in these ten years that have almost passed, degraded (or ascended, depends how you look at it) even more. However you choose to read it (and more options readily present themselves) the three hour long drive through the Romanian hospitals, paired with naturalistic monologue, long, slow shots of non-happening and superb acting is never tedious nor boring (though I detest this word when thinking about moving pictures). Everything fits together perfectly. Puiu’s pace and structure are carefully planned and executed with utmost precision. One rarely sees movies like that today. Even if one looks outside of Hollywood. It feels that I’ve said too little about the movie that will most certainly be remembered, a movie that has all the rights to be called a generational movie. Maybe it’s true. Sometimes, though, I find it much more important to convey a feeling than anything else. I hope I did just that. Remember the wise words of my girlfriend: “It would be shame if you missed it.”
Directed by: Cristi Puiu
Produced by: Alexandru Munteanu, Bobby Păunescu, Anca Puiu
Written by: Cristi Puiu, Răzvan Rădulescu
Starring: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminiţa Gheorghiu
Music by: Andreea Paduraru
Cinematography: Andrei Butica, Oleg Mutu
Editing by: Dana Bunescu