Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Relying on the major works of Western civ, it would be hard to devise a more portentous name than Dante Lazarescu; it promises both a tour of hell and a resurrection from the dead, with a hint of Eastern European phantasmagoria. It could be said that this Dante, a 62-year-old retired widower who lives with three cats in a Bucharest suburb, finds his Virgil, a guide through the underworld of ambulances and emergency rooms. Yet there’s little in their journey that’s metaphorical. Indeed, Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu has often been likened to a documentary—despite the fact that he’s said his stylistic inspiration was ER.
Stylistic, not thematic. Puiu, who co-wrote the film with countryman Razvan Radulescu, shows no interest in the tidy quandaries and easy solutions of American TV dramas. Rather than interweave Dante’s case with two or three others that can be resolved in 50 minutes, the film takes two-and-a-half seems-like-real-time hours to arrive somewhere near—but not quite at—the title event. Puiu isn’t leaving open the possibility of a sequel; he just doesn’t believe in accentuating the inevitable. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is more about pain, decay, and indignity than it is about fatality.
The story can be summarized with a dispatch the movie pointedly forgoes: After finally accepting that booze won’t cure his head- and stomachaches, Dante (Ion Fiscuteanu) calls an ambulance. It eventually arrives, and dogged paramedic Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu) and the driver take the patient on a tour of overcrowded, ill-managed, or simply indifferent hospitals. A bus crash has taxed the city’s emergency rooms, so there’s no space for Dante. But the imperious and self-absorbed attitudes on display suggest that the patient wouldn’t have received significantly more attention on a slower night. The increasingly incoherent Dante must be punished for his own impertinences—the smell of alcohol on his breath, his inability to stand up, his near-comatose failure to understand a doctor’s explanation of the risks of an operation—as well as for Mioara’s. The veteran medic’s willingness to venture a tentative diagnosis might contribute to Dante’s doom, too: These physicians would rather put the woman in her place than attend to her patient.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu can be—and has been—seen as an exposé of the Romanian healthcare system, still afflicted with a Soviet-era brusqueness and sense of official entitlement. Yet Puiu has explained his film, the first in an Eric Rohmer–inspired six-part series of “love” stories, as expressing “love of humanity.” Besides, Bucharest’s hospitals look a lot like Washington’s, with the latest medical technology offset by less healthful attitudes. Anyone who’s followed the case of David E. Rosenbaum, a New York Times reporter who died after being failed by local EMT and ER personnel, should note that Dante at least has a lone advocate in Mioara, who’s willing to be “insolent” if it might save a life.
Dante’s voyage through love and death might raise philosophical questions, but it doesn’t labor to do so. Instead, Puiu’s film is an almost sheerly sensory experience. With the help of a cast in which every player is an immersed-in-character actor, the movie achieves a stunning verisimilitude. (Some of this can be credited to Puiu’s admitted hypochondria; he’s definitely not a hospital first-timer.) As cinematographer Oleg Mutu’s camera snakes through the chaos, the distance between Dante and the viewer nearly evaporates. You’re there—and you’re not feeling so well.
Rather than Rohmer, Puiu suggests the new generation of French directors whose work—films such as Benoît Jacquot’s A Tout de Suite and Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped—seems to be composed entirely of motion and adrenaline. Of course, this visceral approach is transformed when the protagonist is a lumpy pensioner rather than a sleek adolescent. Instead of galloping through youthful heedlessness, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu grinds into age’s final acceptance. That’s not allegory, though. It’s just biology.
My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke,” claims the honoree of Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man. “It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone.” That may be, but one thing that Lian Lunson’s biopic/tribute/concert film clarifies is that Cohen’s worldview has always been erotic—in the philosophical sense of the word.
For such compositions as “Hallelujah” and “Sisters of Mercy,” the poet-turned-songwriter drew on either the fables and imagery of his ancestral religion, Judaism, or those of the French-accented Catholicism that surrounded him during his Montreal childhood. So it sounds reasonable (if not profound) for the Edge to pronounce Cohen’s significance “biblical.” Cohen eventually became a Buddhist monk, which seems to indicate an enduring interest in spiritual transcendence. Yet his account of how he met his Zen master indicates that the singer is still most fascinated by charisma and seduction. He fell in love with a person, not a god or a philosophical system.
The first feature-length documentary about the songwriter since 1981’s The Song of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man shows that the erotic mystic is his own best interpreter—at least biographically. He tells some of the same tales, if not quite the same way, in both films, notably the chaste real story behind “Suzanne,” his best-known (and most annoying) song: In straight reminiscence, he doesn’t claim to have “touched her perfect body with [his] mind.” Cohen also fills in his post-1981 biography—notably his rather un-Zen outlook on being a Buddhist—with self-effacing wit. These personal anecdotes are the heart of Lunson’s film, yet they constitute only about a third of the running time.
Emulating the structure of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, I’m Your Man hangs its narrative on selections from a tribute concert. Named for Cohen’s “Came So Far for Beauty” and held in Sydney, Australia, the 2005 event is heavy on Wainwrights and McGarrigles but also features Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Linda Thompson, Beth Orton, and (in a standout performance) Antony. The concert was organized by producer Hal Willner, whose Kurt Weill tribute also became a film, and it has his trademark embalmer’s touch: The cabaret-rock arrangements are stately and heavily upholstered, suggesting a Victorian coffin custom-made to inter Cohen’s modernist songs. (Admittedly, Willner’s style resembles that of Cohen’s own later recordings—but those were designed for his increasingly limited voice, which offers a sandpaper contrast to the sugary backup vocals.) Then U2, which didn’t perform in Sydney, finally appears to join Cohen in a red-plush-and-décolletage nightclub for a music-video performance of one of his best tunes.
The film’s third element is commentary of Cohen’s famous admirers, which ranges from Bono’s banal Grammies-style plaudits—“beauty is truth” and so on—to moderately more insightful remarks from Rufus Wainwright and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Even at their most interesting, however, the talking heads barely add to Cohen’s self-analysis. I’m Your Man is about two-thirds dreck, but it’s almost redeemed by a Zenlike balance: Cohen’s wry outlook, it turns out, is the ideal antidote to his fans’ overseriousness.CP