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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le vieil homme et la mort

by By Emile Breton

The old man doesn’t live here anymore...a film review

Translated by Ramona Diaconescu

Translated Saturday 4 February 2006, by Ramona

The death of Mr. Lazarescu, directed by Cristi Puiu. Romania. 2005, 2h 34 min.

An old man is alone in his kitchen. A poor kitchen, with a cluttered table, a gas stove, a sagging sofa, a cupboard that refuses to shut properly. The TV is on, soliloquizing in its corner. The old man talks to his cat. To one of his cats - we will see two others appearing suddenly, finding the sofa comfortable. He will die - we know it, since the movie’s title is “The Death of Dante Lazarescu” and we understand that this is his name when he calls the ambulance. Later, when he is asked to state his identity, we will find out his middle name too: Remus - just like the other two, this one is also a little emphatic. A friendly neighbour will sing it, rolling the “R”, Romanian style, whistling the “C” in an almost feminine diminutive: Romica. We enter, with all due discretion, the intimacy of the life of Dante Remus Lazarescu, dignified even in the way he reaches out for the bottle while giving in to his weakness, for which everybody criticizes him - from his sister on the phone to the doctors who see him. Vain moral exhortations on their part. The audience, however, already knowing the old man better than all those who are harassing him, is aware that his problem is of a different nature.

The filmmaker has indeed taken his time to introduce the character to the audience. When the ambulance comes, we have already spent more than half an hour in this down-trodden apartment, had a short trip down the hall and glanced, from the door, into a neighbour’s apartment where Dante goes to ask for a painkiller. The hand-held camera - so irritating in contemporary films, where it is merely used for the sake of style - here wonderfully plays its part, showing us around. Takes are long - and this is already a point of principle. While all those who deal with the old man during this long night judge him according to appearances - yes, he is drunk; yes, he peed in his pants; yes, his vomit stinks - the filmmaker first watches this character as a person who is alive, before judging him. Hence, without further explanations, we feel that we have to look somewhere else for the reasons why this man is a wreck. Snatches of his biography let us know that he hasn’t always been like this. He had a different life, “engineer Lazarescu” - this is how a helpful neighbour calls him when he shares his food with the old man, but doesn’t find time, on a Saturday night, to accompany him at the hospital. The old man used to have a wife, who is now dead, and a daughter, who emigrated to Canada. All the love he can still give is for his cats.

This is why Cristi Puiu’s film style, so close to the character, is first of all a perspective that we can qualify as moral, but not in the sense understood by all those who criticize Lazarescu. The filmmaker stands by his character, keeps close to him. We will be with him, never losing sight of him, during this night of roaming, far from his den and his cats, trailing in an ambulance from hospital to hospital, from rejection to rejection. We enter another world - that of the waiting rooms of emergency services: groans of suffering and bloody wounds, doctors unable to cope, cynical or overwhelmed, nurses exhausted or flirtatious. Another world, and yet the same one, that of armoured indifference, where we judge our fellow men before we take the time to even look at them or to listen to their sorrow.

At first limited in looking around in the old man’s narrow apartment, the camera can move at ease here: backgrounds display all the human misery the camera can see - for instance, behind the stretcher where an old man lies, growing weaker. His suffering becomes that of all humankind. Here, the film takes on all its meaning: we shouldn’t judge a man, but the society which is deaf and blind. The indifference goes beyond those Romanian hospitals, filmed during one night, as in a feverish TV report, camera on the watch. This film is a “revelation”. It shows no mercy for this world, but it is tender with those inhabiting it. It is a film of love, hence its reward - a nurse’s compassionate gesture. Annoyed at first by the old man, while answering his call, she rests her hand on his forehead - it is enough to make us understand that she also stopped to discover a human being.

A film that knows how to take the time needed to discover a man.

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