Directly across the street from Lincoln Center, so close you can still hear the famous fountain, is Dante’s Park; a small patch of grass, hidden on a concrete pedestrian island in the middle of Broadway and Columbus Ave. Surrounded by a small fence, and ringed by park benches facing the road, stands a statue of Dante Alighieri, the great poet himself, clutching a book and looking down on the tiny patch of real estate that has been dedicated to his memory. It is a modest little park, nothing so grand as the poet deserves, but on my first trip to Lincoln Center for this year’s New York Film Festival press screenings, it was nice to see Dante still there, observing the indifferent, modern world that swirls around him.
I, on the other hand, felt hyper-aware. I had spent two weeks in Toronto, and I was more than a little homesick. Sure, Toronto has doubled for New York in the movies, but in real life, there is no place like home. As the feeling of autumn has begun to find its way into the air, I have found myself taking in everything around me with a new relish; it is nice to come home and find your favorite time of year blooming in the city you love, on your way to your favorite film festival. Past the fountain, up the marble stairs, through the throngs of Juilliard students on a permanent smoking break, I made my way into the Walter Reade Theater where, much to my surprise, I was immediately introduced to another Dante on his own trip through the modern inferno, Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ioan Fiscuteanu), the protagonist of Cristi Puiu’s The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu
Sick of the Runaround: Ioan Fiscuteanu as Dante Remus Lazarescu in Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
There is a lot to say about the film, but I feel ultimately safe in guessing that I cannot spoil the ending by talking about it; the revelatory title spills it all. The film follows our Dante on a single night from the moment he begins to feel sick until his ultimate death at the hands of an indifferent health care system. Puiu has created as naturalistic and realistic a fiction as I have ever seen; the slow, perfectly modulated decline of Lazarescu’s health is one of the most infuriatingly comic and tragically accurate depictions of the state of modern medicine as one is likely to ever see. Michael Moore’s forthcoming HMO documentary will have a hard time trumping this film for outrage, laughs, and melancholic frustration.
At the heart of this film is Fiscuteanu’s performance as Lazarescu; a performance so gripping that it creates a tangible, slowly mounting sense of anxiety as Lazarescu fades away to the chorus of insulting, bickering medical professionals who are supposed to be saving his life but instead spend their time flirting, arguing, and attacking each other’s enormous egos. Every Dante must have a Virgil (a name which we hear throughout the film), and this Dante is guided through the health care hell by an EMT named Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), a woman on the fringes of the health care system who, albeit reluctantly, is the only person who empathizes with Lazarescu’s constant dismissal and the only one who takes professional and personal responsibility for him. When she leaves his side at the end of the film, we know that no good will come of it; his guardian angel gone, Lazarescu has nothing left to do but to die.
In his comments in Cannes, Puiu mentioned that he sees this film as the first in a film by film answer to Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series, and you can see the relationship immediately; whereas Rohmer’s films show the constant search for love and human connection between people, Puiu seems set upon expanding that responsibility to the social contract and exposing the troubled relationship between people and the institutions that they create and serve. If The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu is any indication of things to come, there are five amazing films on the way and I am very much looking forward to following Puiu’s tales of the state of human relations. In the meantime, I’m going to have a hard time getting Fiscuteanu’s face out of my head as experiencing the loss of this character was such a traumatizing experience, I know I won’t recover from losing him any time soon.