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A very long night in Bucharest

A man goes unaided in `The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,' which reflects a sad episode in Romania but also suggests a new openness there.

April 30, 2006|Allan M. Jalon | Special to The Times

New York — CORINA SUTEU isn't happy to tell the true story behind "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," the widely honored new Romanian film that traces the ill-fated journey of a paramedic and her patient. But Suteu's voice stays focused as she describes what happened that night in Bucharest. "Unfortunately, I am obliged to tell you it is true," she says. "But it was a huge scandal."

In 1997, it seems, a female paramedic took a 52-year-old man to one hospital, then a second, a third, five in all. At each, doctors ignored him, rejected him, forced them back to the ambulance. The paramedic finally left her tubercular passenger on a sidewalk, where he was found dead.

"This film is one of a very negative aspect of life in Romania," Suteu says amid an art opening at the government-sponsored Romanian Cultural Institute of New York, which she runs in Midtown Manhattan. "But I think the making of such a film shows that, as a country, we are growing."

It was a week before the film -- which follows the news story and doesn't -- had its commercial release in New York, two weeks before its arrival Friday in Los Angeles. Suteu had invited Cristi Puiu, the film's director, to attend the New York opening, but he declined, saying he was terrified of flying.

Critics have admired the film as a timely look at medical frustrations with which people everywhere can identify and as a Kafkaesque study of an individual bumping up against an indifferent bureaucratic system. But Suteu says she and other Romanians also take a more historical view. She said the film's success -- it won last year's Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes and numerous other honors -- has come to symbolize for many the search for a new openness by the "in-between generation" that came of age under the brutal Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and is trying to make sense of changes since the regime fell in 1989.

The 39-year-old filmmaker, speaking from Bucharest, describes a "a very, very intense love-hate relationship" with a Romania beset by corruption, "bureaucratic inertia" and a reluctance to face up to problems. He also says his film, shot over 39 nights in real hospitals, is fiction intended as "a universal expression of the human condition."

Made for the equivalent of about $500,000 and shot in a series of gray-lighted interiors that trap the viewer in this patient's fate, the film owes a lot to Frederick Wiseman's unsparing documentaries and to Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Puiu (pronounced POU-you) says he spent years eavesdropping on doctors as the son of a hospital administrator and that he also drew on his own unhappy encounters with Romanian healthcare.

When we drop into the world of Dante Remus Lazarescu, a 62-year-old retired engineer, he is sitting in his kitchen, unshaven and wearing a knit cap and calling for an ambulance. His tone is matter-of-factly determined (Puiu recalls repeatedly telling actor Ion Fiscuteanu: "Do not play the victim"), but help isn't coming.

Puiu's long opening sequence is either one of the boldest beginnings of any recent film or tedious folly, as a shoulder-held camera closely pursues Lazarescu while he drinks rotgut from an unlabeled bottle, rummages in a cabinet for some Pepto-Bismol-like goo, strokes one of his three cats, takes and coughs up aspirin, glances at the TV. There's news of the bus accident that will overwhelm city hospitals with casualties and become one cause for Lazarescu's deferred treatment. He crosses the hall to ask neighbors for pills.

He's a widower who drinks quite a bit. His wife has died. His daughter has moved to Toronto. He's been throwing up all day. He has piercing headaches. He rests on a sofa, closes his eyes, then vomits blood and waits until a barely sympathetic paramedic arrives. Another long sequence unfolds and she finally takes him to the ambulance and their journey begins.

"It is 55 minutes until he's at the ambulance," Puiu declares, laughing, with defiant-sounding pleasure at locking viewers into blackly comic near-stasis. A devil-may-care drive to face "life as it really happens" is his artistic creed. The 85 pages of that sequence are his work, he says with a glow, while co-writer Razvan Radulescu focused on the rest of the script.

"People say it is the length that bothers them, but it is not the length. We don't want to watch an old man, walking around with his cats, sick. I have a problem with it myself. I am not Mother Teresa. I hate death. I hate degradation and disappearance and all that is related to old age and loneliness. This film is 100% my own confession about my fears. Death: I can not digest this. I am like a kid going to the zoo to see the giraffe. It is like something on another planet. I am amazed by it."


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