After suffering terrible headaches which he can no longer bear, Dante Lazarescu finally calls for an ambulance. Accompanied by paramedic Mioara, who becomes his lone ally, Lazarescu begins his night-long journey in search of proper medical care.
‘The Death of Mr. Lazarescu’ has been widely proclaimed as a terrific dark comedy. I like dark comedies so, despite the title (which doesn’t inspire me much), and the lengthy running time (almost 2.5 hours!), I decided to give it a try. Well, if it’s a dark comedy, it’s so dark that I didn’t get it. Or, perhaps, it’s simply so close to home that it’s hard to see the humour in it.
‘Lazarescu’ is a film about the state of health care in Romania. It’s a terribly serious film – grim, even. It opens up with a sick elderly man who is calling around for help and it ends in the hospital, after much running around trying to get some care for the poor soul. In light of the many horror stories that we hear about health care and the slow decimation of our public health system here in Canada, it’s hardly something to laugh about.
In fact, I don’t find this funny at all. I think that we pay enough taxes to warrant getting free, professional, competent health care. As human beings, we deserve to have access to good care. And having more money shouldn’t mean having better access – we are all people, with a inalienable right to health, irrespective of our personal means. So, when I see a man suffering because of egos, system-wide confusion, terrible communication and sheer negligence, it’s difficult for me to laugh.
The film feels like a documentary – both in the way it’s shot and also because much of it is in real time. It gives immediacy to the character’s plight and forces us to empathize with him – despite his cantankerous nature and the fact that he might very well be the cause of his own illness. Watching him being wheeled around from place to place, feeling every bump in the road, enduring all the silences and being thrown into the chaos that he and the nurse (who responded to his emergency call) have to contend with, is a frustrating experience.
And yet, it’s a rewarding one. Watching a film like this is a distinct reminder that people require real care and attention – something we seem to lose sight of in our quest to make health care somehow “cost efficient” (as though it could ever be, the human body being imperfect as it is!). In stripping away the essence of health care, in removing its humanity, we are essentially killing ourselves and each other. In this film, seeing everyone treat Mr. Lazarescu with (sometimes severe!) detachment very much amplifies this feeling.
Thus, in choosing the film’s title, I wonder if the director was thinking of the character’s physical state, or if he was referring to the death of Lazarescu’s dignity as a human being (i.e. the literal vs. the figurative); that’s hard to see clearly in this sombre tale. Irrespective of its tone, however, it doesn’t change the fact that this film is well-crafted, poignant, topical and noteworthy. Funny or not, ‘The Death of Mr. Lazarescu’ is solid cinema and a very good conversation starter.