Probing man's inhumanity, and finding the human

"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," co-written and directed by Cristi Puiu, is a heartbreakingly powerful masterpiece that affected me far more deeply than any other film I've seen all year.

Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is a burly alcoholic with a splitting headache. Living alone in a dank Bucharest apartment shared by his three cats, he calls an ambulance dispatcher, who tells him to quit boozing. He calls on his neighbors for an aspirin. They tell him not to drink so much. He phones his sister, who tells him the same thing.

Lazarescu - the resemblance of this name to "Lazarus" is intentional - is in a sorrier state by the time an ambulance arrives. Thus begins his nightlong odyssey through a series of crowded hospital emergency rooms in search of treatment as his mysterious condition worsens. His only ally amid all the overworked and often unsympathetic doctors is his dogged ambulance nurse Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu).

At first, the film resembles a documentary - Fred Wiseman's great "Hospital," to be exact - but Puiu has carefully shaped the drama to an emotional crescendo. The action, which takes place over 2-1/2 hours, proceeds in close to real time and almost entirely indoors in tight, closed spaces. The camerawork and the performances, by some of Romania's leading actors, were intricately worked out during weeks of rehearsals. The offhanded realism of this film was hard-won.

The black comic tone is a tribute to Puiu's unremitting gaze. He captures the human comedy in this tragedy. There are no villains in "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," just people who behave well or badly. And we are always given reasons for why these people act as they do. Mioara's steadfast commitment to her patient is inspiring, but she sees it as her duty and nothing more. Puiu doesn't sentimentalize her valor.

He doesn't sentimentalize anything, not even poor old semi-comatose Mr. Lazarescu, who is increasingly closed off to the world as the film progresses. Puiu has said of his film, " 'The Death of Mr. Lazarescu' speaks about a world ... in which a man whose most basic need for help is absurdly ignored by all around him."

Actually, Puiu is being too tough here. His film abounds in sharp, revivifying moments when a simple look or gesture from someone suddenly opens up a world of feeling. A few of the doctors and nurses in the emergency rooms are able to see Lazarescu for who he is, and not simply as a body to be diagnosed.

Puiu has created an entire microcosm of society within these cramped walls. His portrayal of the class system between physicians and their attendants, the subtle disdain that is passed down, is especially acute. A cross-section of humanity in its most vulnerable aspect is laid bare.

Puiu has said that he patterned his film on one of Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales," and it shows. "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" is a resoundingly moral film because it delves so deeply into what it means to be human. Grade: A (In Romanian with English subtitles.)

Rated R for language and brief nudity.

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