You needn't be psychic to figure out the ending of Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and you needn't be a literary scholar or historian to guess at what it means: As former Communist countries recover from decades of stunted growth, so does the health of their national cinemas. This is Romania's first major diagnostic clarion call.
At one level, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is universal ... the story of an old man, living in lassitude with his three lazy cats, and drinking a little too much one day before arriving at death's door. But the details of Lazarescu's last night on earth are perhaps more particularly Eastern European. Puiu photographs his milieu in a claustrophobic fug, with hand-held camera, like a Danish Dogme film, and with long takes that suck the life out of its characters. His pace is languidly Russian, his tone and symbolism more Hungarian, sparingly flecked with mordant wit and a relentless portrait of strained humanity and passive nihilism.
It takes a while for Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) to convince the few remaining people in his life that anything's really wrong with him. They all think it's the drink. His sister is indifferent, and his married neighbors try at first to ignore him, until their conscience (and his sardonic persistence) gets the better of them (although Sandu doesn't want Miki sharing their freshly made moussaka). A nurse arrives, and diagnoses cancer. Then, to the ambulance, and four hospitals, before a medical team finally strips him, shaves his head, and prepares him for surgery with the portentous Dr. Anghel, the X-rays from two hospitals earlier having revealed a blood clot in his brain.
Puiu leaves us with the impression of a country whose basically good and capable people are frustrated by their lack of resources and too realistic about their options. We don't learn much about Lazarescu, nor do we need to: He represents every old dying Romanian who won't live to see better days. "Are you still feeling nauseous?" his nurse asks him in the ambulance. Speaking for his generation, he replies, "I'm feeling melancholy, ma'am." Meanwhile, his daughter has left for Canada, and the nurse's son has a child out of wedlock ... two peripheral snapshots that hint at their country's unsettled future.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a portrait of a people who know what ails them ... everyone is conversant on a wide range of illnesses and over-the-counter pills ... but who, like a Christian Scientist, can only pray (but not literally) for a cure. "Inattention strikes again on Romanian roads," says a TV news announcer before Lazarescu leaves home on his final ride. She's speaking of a highway pileup whose victims overwhelm Bucharest hospitals just when Lazarescu needs a doctor to pay attention to him. It's a striking irony ... almost like hearing about your own death, before it happens, on the evening news. In Romanian, with subtitles.