The Death of Mr Lazarescu (15)

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The Independent Culture

Weakened by Kryptonite in Superman Returns, the Man of Steel is rushed into hospital, where medics attempt to give him an injection; naturally, the needle bends against his impermeable skin. This is the body that Hollywood dreams of, which neither metal nor emotion can penetrate. As off-screen cosmetic surgery and on-screen CGI increasingly purge American movies of all that's imperfect and organic, expressiveness vanishes too: Kate Bosworth's airbrushed face as Lois Lane is the single most opaque signifying surface in recent cinema.

For pictures of real humanity, of bodies that emote and decay, you must look outside cinema's mainstream. That's why a two-and-a-half-hour Romanian film about an old man's medical problems is the welcome antidote to a blockbuster about invulnerability (and it's one minute shorter than Superman Returns). The publicity for Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu calls it "a black comedy": well, in a grim world, you take comedy wherever you can find it. Black the film certainly is, comic only by the most gritted-teeth criteria; but if you still look to cinema for insights into the business of living (however precariously), then Mr Lazarescu is the film to see.

Perhaps the title might more accurately be translated as "The Dying of Mr Lararescu": Puiu shows us not result but continuous drawn-out process. Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is a grouchy widower in his sixties who lives in Bucharest with three cats, as shabby and slow-moving as him. In the film's first section, set in his cramped flat, we learn a little about him: his daughter, whose Kim Wilde posters are still on her bedroom wall, now lives in Canada; he has a sister with whom he's on close but prickly terms; he's not a great one for tidying up; and his neighbours regard him as an "intellectual", which he may well be: he's certainly got a thorough working knowledge of the glossary of painkillers. Lazarescu is a sick man - even his doorbell sounds bronchitic. Partial to a local vanilla-flavoured hooch, he is rotting from the inside out, and Puiu's film makes us intimately familiar with Lazarescu's condition, no detail spared about the consistency of his stools or puke.

Outside porn, when did an actor last allow his body to be so mercilessly exposed on screen as Fiscuteanu? A bulky tortoise of a man, Lazarescu has a wobbling gut, jelly-like upper arms, grubby bandages wrapped round his varicosed shins, a prickly bladder of a face. Just looking at him, you know he smells as bad as everyone constantly complains he does. From the first sight of him feeding his cats something unsightly, this is a very olfactory film. But nothing's overstated - without pushing things towards the grotesque, Puiu maintains a delicate balance between Beckett and the kitchen sink.

At the start, Lazarescu simply touches his belly in response to a twinge; it's downhill from there. His argumentative but solicitous neighbours recommend sleep and cabbage juice. Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), a middle-aged female paramedic, arrives to give him a businesslike once-over, then rushes him to hospital: that's when you realise that Bucharest is not high on the list of recommended places to take a rest cure.

Through the night, Lazarescu is carted from hospital to hospital, as a succession of doctors examine but refuse to treat him; not without reason, as Bucharest's emergency rooms are heaving with the bloodied and groaning, following a coach crash. Mioara sticks with Lazarescu, partly through common humanity, partly because she has no earthly way of getting rid of him. One doctor gives Lazarescu a sermon on booze; another sneering pair are more interested in lecturing Mioara about the medical pecking order than in attending to the patient. A brain-scan operator proves more human, but with a bilious streak of sarcasm ("These neoplasms are Discovery Channel stuff"). At last, Lazarescu reaches the inner circle of medical indifference, where a bunch of doctors greet him with bored hostility but nevertheless agree to get him ready for operation by one "Dr Anghel".

If Dr Anghel is an angel, he/she is the only one here. Puiu seems to nudge us towards a metaphysical reading: is his hero a Dante exploring the healthcare inferno, a Lazarus crawling towards the grave? Yet Lazarescu's journey is largely realistic. Puiu's avowed models include documentarists Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon. Puiu follows Lazarescu in real time, or a close simulation of it, apparently eliding only ambulance and lift rides. As a result, we're constantly aware that Lazarescu's time is running out. Whatever the actual location of his malaise - in his liver, his brain, or in the misfortune of being human - its most telling symptom is the progressive erosion of his personality. The cantankerous, articulate, rebellious man we first met finds words and spirit draining from him as he increasingly becomes an object hauled around on a trolley. His language is reduced to incoherent muttering, until he can't even speak his own name. The film is brutally unsentimental about the idea of death with dignity.

Near the end, however, Lazarescu rallies, just enough to comment on his predicament: "It's a problem of mortality." And since most current cinema is determined to smooth over that problem, the very fact that Puiu shoves it in our faces - in all its grubby, rancid and sometimes droll reality - is reason enough to see this extraordinary, utterly compelling film.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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