Two and a half hours of shaky handheld lensing about a man slowly expiring in a succession of hospitals becomes unexpectedly mesmerizing in helmer-scripter Cristi Puiu’s sophomore Cannes entry “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” Conceived as the first in a series titled “Six Stories From the Bucharest Suburbs,” pic’s dour take on the dehumanizing process of medical treatment is leavened by black humor and dialogue that always rings true. Running time will scare off customers, but hardy fest crowds should find the slog is worth moments of tedium.
Still working with a tight budget although one a little richer than for his previous “Stuff and Dough,” the admittedly hypochondriacal Puiu obviously spent a lot of time with doctors as is reflected in the long list of medical advisers in the end credits. He and fellow scripter Razvan Radulescu know the hospital milieu intimately and perfectly capture the throw-away lines and casual concerns that superficially connect people and get them through their day.
Widower Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), 62, calls for an ambulance one evening after suffering from head and stomach aches. He lives alone with his cats, enjoys a tipple, and has a sister in a neighboring town and a daughter living in Canada. Those are the facts, but Puiu builds personalities without going further into the specifics and generates sympathy not from detailed character development but out of a basic concern for the human condition.
When the ambulance fails to arrive, Lazarescu asks his neighbors the Sterians (Doru Ana and Dana Dogaru) for some pills. Concerned but also judgmental about his unclean apartment and the alcohol on his breath, the Sterians finally reach emergency services, which arrives in the guise of medic Mioara Avram (Luminta Gheorghiu) and driver Leo (Gabriel Spahiu).
Evidently, Lazarescu picked a bad night to get sick: Victims of a local bus accident are crowding the city’s hospitals. As the night wears on, Lazarescu will be transferred to four hospitals and will be seen by a slew of doctors, almost all of them over-worked, snide, arrogant and short-tempered.
Mioara accompanies the worsening patient throughout the journey, listening to one casually reached diagnosis after another while putting up with the hospital staff’s hostile and patronizing barbs.
Puiu doesn’t muddy the emotional waters with ruminations or flashbacks: As the night wears on, the mood increasingly feels like an emergency room reality show. The camera moves with a documentary-like omnipresence capturing snippets of conversations as people pass by Lazarescu without showing any genuine interest.
No one really engages the man lying on the gurney in any kind of conversation. The staff members appear far more concerned with protecting their turf or playfully flirting with colleagues — a world anyone who’s spent time in hospitals knows, no matter what nationality.
Uniformly excellent perfs obviously benefited from the three weeks of rehearsals Puiu organized before the short shooting schedule. Tight, cramped shots in the apartment have a naturalism not unlike Mike Leigh’s intimate family affairs, while hospital scenes, full of sardonic humor, owe more to Cassavetes via “ER.” Character names — Dante, Lazarus, even an unseen Dr. Anghel — aren’t difficult to recognize, but Puiu steers away from heavy-handed symbolism.