No one outside Romania was aware of Ion Fiscuteanu's superb acting skills until 2005, the year Cristi Puiu's film The Death of Mr Lazarescu was shown at the festival in Cannes, where it won the Prix d'un Certain Regard. Fiscuteanu's astonishing performance won him awards at the Copenhagen and Transylvania film festivals, the last especially apt since Fiscuteanu gives the doomed Mr Lazarescu a distinct Transylvanian accent.
Fiscuteanu was born in Bistrita in northern Transylvania. He studied acting in Bucharest and worked regularly in the theatre from the 1950s onwards. In the 1980s, he appeared in two films directed by Mircea Daneliuc: Glissando (1985) and Jacob (1988). After the 1989 revolution, he continued to work as an actor, and pursued a second career as a writer of short stories and poems.
"He looked like a real person, not an actor," said Cristi Puiu of Fiscuteanu, who declared after auditioning for the part of Lazarescu, "There is no actor in Romania who will do this character better than me." The accuracy of Fiscuteanu's boast became apparent when Puiu began filming the movie. During the 40-day shoot, there were frequent arguments between Fiscuteanu and Puiu about how Lazarescu should be portrayed, and it seems likely that the actor won most of the battles.
It is no exaggeration to say that Fiscuteanu's assumption of Mr Lazarescu ranks with some of the greatest performances in cinematic history. From the very first scene, one ceases to be aware that Fiscuteanu is acting as he shuffles about the squalid apartment in Bucharest that he shares with a number of mangy cats. The viewer becomes an interloper as the terrible story unfolds. The action takes place over a single night, with the dying old man being shuttled from one hospital to another, the victim of a blinkered bureaucracy. The indifference of the medical system is exposed at every turn, with the only sympathy for Mr Lazarescu's sorry plight being exhibited by a harried paramedic played by the incomparable Luminita Gheorgiu.
Puiu has revealed that Fiscuteanu was difficult to direct. The actor constantly complained that he loathed Bucharest and hated the character of Mr Lazarescu. But the director remained patient, knowing that he was in the presence of a remarkable talent.
It is something like a miracle that Puiu and Fiscuteanu collaborated with each other on The Death of Mr Lazarescu. A brilliant young director, bursting with ideas, encounters an actor who has toiled long and hard at his craft, and the result of that difficult and edgy collaboration is a mordant masterpiece. Fiscuteanu is present in almost every frame, his face registering a myriad ideas and feelings. The two men met, as it now transpires, in the nick of time.