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(The real title is Moartea domnului Lazarescu )

Dante Remus Lazarescu: his parents must have been educated, for they named him after the Italian poet and one of the founders of Rome. He once had a wife, but she’s been dead for ten years. He once had a daughter, but she’s gone to live on another continent. Now he’s just an old guy who drinks and stinks, living on an inadequate pension in Bucharest. To his sister and her husband, he’s a mooch who is always borrowing money to drink on. He loves his three cats tenderly, and the neighbors don’t like them a bit.

Mr. Lazarescu is not well, and at first we think maybe he’s just lonely, making a call to the medical service for some much-needed attention. He asks a neighboring couple for medicine. They seem cold at first, and standoffish, then you get a hint of what they have put up with from him already. When the paramedic, a woman named Mioara, arrives, the neighbor woman says she resents Mr. Lazarescu because he started her husband drinking. Yet despite some rough words, these neighbors act with incredible kindness. The husband, Sandu, goes along to the hospital.

These neighbors have an interesting relationship. Sandu issues orders to his wife, but she issues some to him, too. Even when her husband specifically tells her not to do something, i.e., not to bring Mr. Lazarescu a bowl of their stew, she goes ahead and does it anyway.

The poor man, now vomiting blood, gets taken to four different hospitals, always accompanied by Mioara the ambulance attendant, who is a hero in her own quiet yet assertive way. As the night wears on and they are sent, for various logistical and bureaucratic reasons, from one hospital to another, the EMT attends her patient impersonally yet intimately. If she weren’t wearing the official orange vest with her job title stenciled on the back, she might be Mr. Lazarescu’s concerned, dutiful wife or daughter.

I’m wondering if this is a true picture of the attitude toward alcoholism in contemporary Romania. Because it was Communist for more than 40 years, until 1989, and alcoholism was always a big problem in all the Iron Curtain countries. Of the many medical professionals the patient encounters through the night, some give him hell about drinking. One doctor is particularly bastardly in his scolding. However it may have been in the old days, there is little tolerance for alcohol addicts here.

Ed Gonzalez says all the medical people “glibly dismiss Lazarescu because he stinks of alcohol” and the ambulance nurse “bears witness like some frustrated angel of mercy to the man’s dehumanization.” But it’s not like that. The doctors that seem like the biggest assholes at first, are the most helpful. One doctor who seems uncaring turns out to be incredibly cool. Some of the medics are more brusque than others, but mostly they are kind. And no matter how indifferent or critical their words, they are never rough in their physical handling of the patient. When he vomits or pees himself, they’re mainly professional, though one is a bit rude. One of the things the story illustrates is how much, under any system, so much still depends on personal contacts, the extended family, the favor bank. And it is truly surprising, the amount of gentleness shared between strangers.

As the hours drag by and he is shuttled from one health care facility to another, Mr. Lazarescu loses ground. He’s already lost control of his arm and hand. Plus, he’s confused and doesn’t understand the informed consent stuff the doctor is telling him. He won’t sign the paperwork. The doctor says take him to another hospital, or drive around for an hour until and wait till he’s comatose, then bring him back and they can operate without consent.

Roger Ebert wrote that the film is seen by many people as a criticism of Romania’s health care services. When this movie was made, the country was some kind of a democracy with a state-owned health care system. It doesn’t seem so bad. In the workplace, women appear to have just as much rank, and an equal right to be arrogant jerks also. The camaraderie among the medics is true to life.

If there is criticism of the system here, it’s far from a scathing denunciation. The man does get the diagnostic scans he needs. A doctor uses her personal clout to convince another doctor to set it up. The doctor who won’t proceed without the consent, well, who would expect him to throw away his medical license by improperly authorizing a surgery? In this respect, Romania is probably no worse than anywhere else. Doctors have constraints; even if the rules are wrong, they have to follow them or get kicked out of the union. And besides, there was a terrible bus accident and all the city’s hospitals are in overdrive.

But really, this poor guy is what an American doctor would describe as a GOMER, as in “Get Out of My Emergency Room.” Of course it’s one of those ironic medical humor expressions, because doctors know they are supposed to treat all patients as equal. They take an oath. But it is maximally depressing when someone shows up that the staff knows is not going to get any better, no matter how diligently they work to patch him up. GOMERs are one of the reasons why medical workers suffer burnout. Especially the patients who are on their last legs, the no-hopers whose every step into decrepitude and imminent death was self-inflicted.

The patient is sinking fast, and one of the last semi-coherent things he says is “I have to go to Christmas with girl Bianca.” That’s what he’s got to hold onto and stay alive for, the very unlikely chance that his daughter might make the trip back from Canada. Or maybe he is lost already in the misty past.

Finally, he ends up at a hospital where they agree to do surgery on him. Two women do the surgical prep. Up until now, all the various medics have been repeatedly dressing and undressing him as the various needs arose. These women cut off his pajama pants, as if to say, “You won’t be needing these any more.” They efficiently and dispassionately wash his wreck of a body, with its mound of abdominal fat and the lower legs swathed in bandages because of the open sores. One of the women meticulously, carefully shaves his head for the surgery. She tucks the sheet up under his chin and says some kind words, and the movie ends. It could almost be one of those ambiguous endings. Maybe he pulls through, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he makes it back home to his cats. On the other hand, the title is The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, so that’s kind of a spoiler.

After watching the film on the recommendation of a friend, only then do I look at the box and do a double-take. They’re calling this a comedy? The most acclaimed comedy of the year?  WTF? Wow, I am really losing my grip. Never in a thousand years would I have classified this as a comedy, black or otherwise. That anyone does, shows how far I have drifted from comprehension of the current world. (Of course I said the same thing on learning that the grim, pointless, revolting Trainspotters was touted as a comedy.) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu: Here I am, thinking I’ve just watched a touching, absorbing portrait of human nature, one that maybe says something about a political system or a social theory, but….

a comedy?

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