In Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th century masterwork The Divine Comedy, Dante is given a guided tour of the Underworld by fellow-poet Virgil, the better to help him on his eventual ascent to Heaven.
So it is hardly a coincidence that Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (or Moartea Domnului Lazarescu) also features a protagonist with the forename Dante, and two (unseen) Virgils; for, like the Italian epic, Puiu’s film is a comedy (although not in the laugh-out-loud sense of the word), blending social commentary with spiritual allegory as it traces one man’s nocturnal descent into the Circle of Hell that is Romania’s healthcare service – a service not unlike our own.
One evening Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ioan Fiscuteanu), a 62-year-old widower with only his three beloved cats for company, is taken ill and calls for an ambulance; and when it fails to arrive, he turns to his reluctant neighbours the Sterians (Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru) for help. Eventually middle-aged paramedic Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) shows up and, suspecting that Lazarescu may have cancer, ferries her increasingly frail and delirious patient from one hospital to the next through Bucharest.
It is a night when services have become overstretched by a horrific road accident, but Lazarescu’s hopes for proper treatment will be repeatedly thwarted as much by professional officiousness, arrogance and indifference as by circumstance.
Puiu’s second feature is the first of a projected series of six films, each on a different aspect of love, inspired by Eric Rohmer’s ‘Six Moral Tales’ – although here love seems marked more by its absence than by its presence. Already estranged from his sister and on the other side of the world from his daughter, Lazarescu cuts an isolated figure, treated with only guarded solicitude even by his nextdoor neighbours (who pointedly refuse to let him into their apartment, express critical disgust at the state of his own, and seem more concerned with the jelly cooking on their stove than with his illness).
Most (if not all) of the doctors are even less caring, preferring to comment with contempt on their patient’s alcoholic breath and malodorous state (the latter caused in part by the endless delays) than to tend to his more urgent needs.
Only Mioara, with the help of her driver Leo (Gabriel Spahiu), finishes what she starts, seeing Lazarescu right through to his last stop and remaining a (largely frustrated) advocate for his best interests – her connection with Lazarescu apparently rooted in the sense of age, loneliness and gradually declining health that she shares with him. She is, however, assisted on her way by occasional epiphanies of kindness from others, and the fourth, final hospital that they reach in the wee hours of the morning is a veritable haven of good practice, where the unseen Dr Anghel and his orderly Virgil preside over what might be the gates of Paradise.
Shot at shoulder height in fly-on-the-wall documentary style, Puiu’s film is a bleak slice of realism which nonetheless is pervaded by more poetic subtexts, as the journey of Lazarescu’s body seems, particularly towards the end, to be also a metaphysical odyssey of the soul. With a title like The Death of Mr Lazarescu, there is little doubt from the start where the film’s protagonist is headed (and it is, after all, where every one of us ends up).
But the closing scenes are handled with such understated restraint that it is difficult to know whether Lazarescu, lying cleansed and naked on a stretcher, has passed on to the next world or, like his New Testament namesake, has been granted another chance in this one. The important thing, though, and the film’s only comfort, is that either way he seems, after a long, dark night of despair, at last to be in good hands.