Death Of Mr. Lazarescu (The) AKA Moartea Domnului Lazarescu
R1 - America - Tartan Video
Review written by and copyright: David Cormack & Noor Razzak (24th September 2006).
The Film

My kingdom for a breath mint.

An old man sits in his dilapidated apartment feeding his cats and feeling very sick.
A bus crashes into a truck killing at least 11 tourists.
A paramedic is told to shut up when she demands that her charge be operated on as per instructions.
Doesn't sound like a riotous barrel of laughs does it? But, Romania's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (Moartea domnului Lazarescu) is a very funny movie.
Not funny like the belly laughs you'd get watching a Peter Sellers movie, but there are genuine laugh-out-loud scenes as well as an underlying sense of comic mirth throughout the entire journey.
The film opens with Mr Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu, in one of the more phenomenal acting performances - more on this later) home alone with his cats on a Saturday night. He feels a bit ill, has a terrible headache and has been throwing up for the whole day. He calls for an ambulance and is told to sit tight and wait and one will be with him shortly.
Only one isn't with him shortly at all, he calls again and again and still the ambulance doesn't come. So he visits his next-door neighbours who give him medication and sit with him. But this facade of caring is undone when, Mr Lazarescu throws up blood and his neighbours sit there chatting about the state of the burnt Jelly they'd been cooking. Despite what it may sound like, the whole situation reeks of absurdist comedy and I found myself laughing in spite of the melancholy.
And so it goes on. A paramedic - Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu) - finally arrives but she doesn't seem to care either. Only when she realises that he may have colon cancer does she act in a way one would expect a medical professional to.
The lack of compassion displayed towards Mr Lazarescu until this point is due to his tendency to drink. He drinks "Matropolis", a hybrid drink of the working class that is high in toxicity but low in status. Both his neighbours and the paramedic initially assume he is drunk and this is a trend that is to repeat itself over and over in some vicious sisyphustinian cycle:
Doctor or nurse leans over the patient, takes a whiff of his breath then immediately concludes he is drunk and does not need the urgent attention that the audience know he does. If only he'd brushed his teeth before he left his apartment huh?
The whole film is based around Mioara's attempts to get Mr Lazarescu the proper help he needs and as he is tossed out of one hospital and told to move on to the next, Mr Lazarescu's health deteriorates before our very eyes, his speech becomes slurred, he loses control over his bladder and bowel, and he can't walk anymore.
Some of the tantrums thrown by the doctors in this film are truly remarkable, there's one who kicks Mr Lazarescu out calling him a drunk and a pig and a waste of time. Another will not operate on him because he won't sign the consent form, this despite the fact that he has no idea what's going on around him; and yet another berates and abuses him for wetting himself whilst awaiting a CT scan.
Admittedly this sounds like a tragic, sad awful film but the semi-farcical nature of it never allows it to fall into the trap of something like The Notebook, which is just a lame attempt to make the audience cry.
There are some criticisms of the film to begin with, outside of the lead, no one puts in a particularly good acting performance. There just doesn't seem to be any care or emotion put in. But the biggest criticism is levelled not at the actors, the director or any of those who directly worked on the film but at the person who wrote the translation for the subtitles. Quite often the subtitles aren't correct and in some instances not even attempted with the odd conversation peppered by written Romanian words. Whilst the overall gist of the conversations is clear it can become a little annoying when it's apparent the translator got lazy and just left a word out.
I spoke earlier of the acting performance of Ion Fiscuteanu. Whilst he is not a household name I don't think you could expect to see a better acting performance from anyone in the last 5 years' worth of film making. The range of emotions he invokes from us is startling, we hate him, we like him, we sympathise with him, we cheer him. We cover the whole spectrum and we truly believe that this is a sick old man who becomes deathly ill over the course of the 2 hours of the film.
What? 2 hours you say? That's a long film. Yes it is, and you'd think with this subject matter that it would be hellishly boring. But, much to my surprise, it's not! I'm the sort of guy who starts to get antsy about 2 hours through a movie but at no stage did my attention start to wander, even at its meandering pace this film had me hooked from its start to the nicely done finish.
Which I might add is wonderfully ambiguous.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Whilst it may sound like a crap movie that would hold no interest to you whatsoever it's the most wonderfully surprising film I've seen in a long time. Besides, just explaining the plot sometimes fails to capture how great a film is. Try and explain "The Usual Suspects" (1995) storyline and make it sound great.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 this anamorphic transfer is very good for a film shot on DV. The image is sharp and clean, although some minor grain and compression artefacts are evident in scenes with low light. Otherwise I was happy with the color balance, blacks are deep and bold and are not as murky as other DV transfers that I have seen. The only major downside (aside from the grain and compression issues) to this transfer that I can see is that it's a flat and doesn't provide the depth and scope that film does.

Audio

Three audio tracks are included for this film and they are all in the film's original language of Romanian. The tracks are in DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. For the purposes of this review I chose to view the film with its DTS track, this half bit-rate track is very good at presenting the dialogue, considering this film is a dialogue heavy film it was clear and distortion free. There were occasional surround effects utilized for sirens and ambient hospital noise, but otherwise this track isn't exactly the most active and depth isn't something that would be expected from it either and as such is limited. I do feel that a DTS track was a waste on this film, a Dolby 5.1 or even 2.0 surround would have done the trick.
Optional subtitles are also included in English. I found that the English subtitles were not as easy to read, they are presented in a awkward font and they are blue with white outlines that made it difficult to read close up or on a small screen. To view them clearly make sure to either sit away from the screen (farther than usual) or watch the film on a large screen. Other than that I found that they didn't disappear off the screen too quickly and I could not spot any major spelling or grammatical errors.

Extras

Tartan Video has included two interviews, the film's theatrical trailer plus bonus trailers. Below is a closer look at these supplements.

First up we have an interview with the film's director Cristi Puiu which runs for 45 minutes 41 seconds. In this clip the director discusses the inspiration for the film coming from his own medical problems he faced in 2001, the difficulty in raising money for a film in Romania. As well as the black comedy aspects of the film, working with actor Ion Fiscuteanu and how they integrated his own Transylvania accent into the script (Bucharest accents are different and thus an explanation had to be written into the script why he spoke the way he did). The director also comments on the personal touches made in the film, his homage to filmmaker John Cassavetes and also on the Romanian Health System reaction to the film as well as the critical and festival praise the film received despite the obstacles such as the long run time, the film's title and the fact that it was a Romanian film among other things. Although I'd prefer an audio commentary this interview is worth exploring as he provides a look of interesting and informative information regarding the film, it's background and cast.

Next up is "Perspective on the U.S. Health care System by Dr. Fred Berlin" an interview that runs for 12 minutes 4 seconds. The doctor comments on this reaction to the film and if there's any similarities to the U.S. Health Care System. He points out the difference between what he saw in the film and how that would be treated in American hospitals for example Mr. Lazarescu's medical problem would have been classified as an emergency in the U.S. and would not have been transferred from one hospital to another among other things. Although brief this is also an interesting extra to explore however I would have preferred something more substantial.

The film's original theatrical trailer is included and runs for 1 minute 21 seconds.

Rounding out the extras are a series of bonus trailers for:

- "Battle in Heaven" which runs for 1 minute 50 seconds.
- "Hoover Street Revival" which runs for 1 minute 47 seconds.
- "The Hidden Blade" which runs for 1 minute 29 seconds.
- "Milwaukee, Minnesota" which runs for 2 minutes 5 seconds.

These previews can be viewed individually or with the option of a 'play all' feature.

The packaging states that included is a booklet that features a New York Times article on the film and an interview with director Christoph Huber, however the only booklet included in this DVD is a chapter selection insert.

The director's interview is clearly the standout extra on this release, however I was left wanting more by way of making-of's or even an audio commentary from the cast and crew.

Overall

The Film: A+ Video: B- Audio: B Extras: C+ Overall: B

 


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