The country of Romania must loathe its film industry. For all of the international acclaim and awards that Romanian New Wave directors like Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean and more have earned over the past two decades, most of it has been in the service of depicting their homeland as an interminably dysfunctional and corrupt moral hellscape.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, regarded as Romania's breakthrough into the upper echelons of world cinema, is no different, and is just as specific and searing a critique of Romanian society as any of the movies that followed it. Director Cristi Puiu spends one night with a 63-year-old man (Ion Fiscuteanu), suffering from headaches and nausea, and his journey through the Bucharest medical system: the long wait for an ambulance, begrudging assistance from family and neighbors, careless attention from harried medics, and intermittently veiled hostility in overcrowded hospitals. It's a gauntlet of indifference, in which the primary mode of care agreed on by every level of the process is the relentless shaming of the ailing patient. As Lazarescu becomes progressively confused and incoherent, one friend/nurse/doctor after another berates him for his lifestyle, and when they aren't allowing their own personal dramas and self-interests to impede their service to their patient, they welcome any opportunity to argue their expertise and belittle one another as a distraction from actual treatment. It's a society rotting from a lack of trust, cooperation and empathy.
I've mentioned a few times how little I'm looking forward to eventually encountering Michael Haneke’s Amour at some point in this movie challenge — very likely on this first list — as the thought of watching an old person slowly die is not high on my list of savored experiences. While Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV got that subject matter right, with an arch air of dissonance blanketing Jean-Pierre Léaud's riveting deathbed performance, a fittingly lethargic dirge like Götz Spielmann's OKtober November can feel like one's own mortality is being stretched to its very limits. Add Puiu to the short register of those directors who are able to mine the transcendent from the depressing. Like most of the Romanian New Wave, he lets his depressing and maddening scenario play out naturally, with all of its indignities allowed to speak for themselves; and yet he adds enough knowing perspective in the construction for it to never feel unnaturally weighted in a polemic or sentimental direction, and his passive camera allows both the tragedy and absurdity to flower.