(written as reviews and a podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
Before a look at two Romanian films – Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12.08, East of Bucharest (2006) and Cristi Puiu’s 2005 film The Death of Mr Lazarescu – here is a Romanian joke of some vintage, told to me when I was there on an extended stay in 1993.
A man is travelling through Romania by train, which stops at an unscheduled station in a provincial town and doesn’t leave. The man is mystified so asks the guard why they aren’t moving. ‘We have to wait here while we change the engine,’ replies the guard. And so the passenger waits. One hour, then two hours pass, until he can wait no longer and he goes to ask the guard what is happening. He finds him at the front of the train with the driver and the engineer, surrounded by empty beer bottles and all getting drunk. ‘I thought you were going to change the engine?’ he says to the guard. ‘We did,’ the guard replies, ‘we changed it for a crate of beer.’
If you haven’t come across Romanian humour before, then 12:08, East of Bucharest is a good place to start. The film is suffused with a mordantly funny undercurrent of self-deprecating hopelessness that is punctuated by numerous laugh-out-loud moments. The targets may have changed now communism has gone, but the attitude remains.
In his debut feature, director Corneliu Porumboiu turns his attention to the momentous events of December 1989, when communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled from Bucharest. Provincial TV show host Virgil Jderescu announces that the topic for his afternoon talk show, ‘Issue of the Day’ will be what part the citizens of his town played in the revolution that happened 16 years previously. Given that the answer seems to be absolutely none, and that his hilariously ramshackle show degenerates into recriminations, threats and embarrassing revelations as one caller after another phones in to say that events were nothing like those recalled by guest Professor Tiberio Manescu, teacher and town drunk, who claims that he and his colleagues were in the town square on that day, shouting ‘Communism is dead!’ and ‘Down with Ceasescu!’, it seems that Virgil should have taken his production assistant’s advice. 'What's all the fuss about revolution? she says, No-one could care less anymore.' Nevertheless, he ploughs on regardless: 'Heraclitus said’ (he’s fond of the Heraclitus quote, using it to the consternation of his guests, twice in the same programme) ‘you can't step in the same river twice, but let us jump back to 16 years ago, because we love the truth, it's healthy’.
Bracketed by lovely scenes of streetlights going off in the blue-green light of dawn and then on again as snow covers the ground at dusk, this is a film of two halves. The first is a deft and humorous portrait of the interconections of small-town life – ‘old man’ Piscosi is plagued by kids with firecrackers, when he gets drunk Manescu insults the town's Chinese immigrant, from whose shop the children buy their firecrackers – marked by a finely-judged sense of timing and editing that led Porumboiu to win a number of international awards, not least the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2006 for the best debut feature. The second half is the makeshift live show in which Manescu and Piscosi appear as replacement guests for the talk show.
There are serious points here too of course – about commemorating, mythmaking and forgetting, as Virgil aims to get to the kernel of truth regarding the events of that fateful day by aiming for a precise timing of events, specifically whether people came onto the streets after 12:08, when Ceasescu fled, or before. If afterwards, then ‘there was no revolution in the town’, he says. ‘The clearer the past, the clearer the future will be,’ says he, which is to say, not very clear at all. Piscosi probably has it about right when he says in an unregarded comment that, 'one makes whatever revolution one can, each in their own way'.
Near the end of the talk show a woman phones in to say that she lost her son in the events of 1989. However, that’s not why she is phoning. She wants to tell them that it is snowing outside, in big, white flakes. ‘Enjoy it now, tomorrow it will be mud,’ she says, which is a tantalising, and characteristically deadpan summation of the film’s spirit.
Comedy, if indeed that is what it is, of a very much darker sort – though it is closer in tone to an absurdist satire – comes with Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu, in which, through the course of one Saturday night, Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu, a 62 year-old widower living alone but for his three cats, is collected and ferried around in an ambulance as the nurse and her driver try to find a hospital that will take responsibility for him. As it is he plays the role of the unfortunate subject in a game of human pass the parcel. The ending of the film is never in doubt, it’s right there in the title, it’s how he gets there and people’s attitudes to him along the way that form the substance of the film. It is, as Puiu says, a film ‘about the extinction of an anonymous human being’.
People’s worst characteristics come to the fore (and frankly there is very little of their best). There are bickering neighbours upset that Lazarescu’s illness is going to ruin their evening of quince jelly-making. ‘Thanks for leaving me alone on Saturday night’ the woman hisses to her husband when it looks as if he will accompany Lazarescu to the hospital. Then there are the judgemental, patronising, facetious, moralising, uppity doctors in no mood to be told by a mere nurse what is wrong with the patient and who regard treatment as a personal favour. Even the nurse only comes because she fears Lazarescu might have meningitis.
As Lazarescu is shunted around from one hospital to another he, and his accompanying nurse, find that illness has a hierarchy. He is unfortunate to have been stricken on a busy night. A 62 year-old man who has been drinking and has soiled himself comes well below the undeserving victims of a coach accident. Time and again the same procedures are carried out – tell me your name, bend you knees, squeeze my hand, raise your arms, look at the light, follow the pen. Then there is a consultation in which the seriousness of his condition is confirmed. In medical terms he has a subdural haematoma that requires surgery, dysarthria, an engorged, cancerous liver and varicose veins. In Mr Lazarescu’s terms, which he manages to say to a doctor as he is slipping out of consciousness, ‘I have a headache and belly sir.’
At first sight, with its handheld camerawork in restricted locations of rooms, corridors, stairwells, an ambulance and wards, Lazarescu resembles a verite-style documentary of the night’s events, but there is more to the film than this. In the early scenes in Lazarescu’s flat, a washing machine anticipates the structure of the CAT scanner, the red liquid in the bottle on the table looks forward to the blood that will be taken from him, and the mention of the neighbour's drill anticipates the cranial surgery that Lazarescu will need. Sometimes the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed – the final doctor’s name is probably a joke too far, and the nurse drinking water to take a couple of tablets in the ambulance while pointedly ignoring Lazarescu who has just said he is thirsty doesn’t really ring true either, and by now we are well aware anyway that he hasn’t been offered a glass of water since he left his flat.
The colours of the film are those of unrelieved artificiality. This was probably unavoidable from the locations in which the film was shot, but it does much to help create an appropriate feeling of dissatisfaction. There’s the nicotine yellow of Lazarescu's apartment, the yellow-green of the ambulance interior, and the polar blue-whiteness of the wards and emergency rooms. It leads you to crave natural daylight, though as it takes place through the night, from 10pm to around 4am the following day, there is no hope of such a thing occurring. At one point peachy fluorescent roof lights flash through the ambulance as it goes through a tunnel, and these provide temporary relief by introducing another colour – but these are as artificial as all the other light in the film. When they finally reach Bagdasur hospital, the head doctor there is dressed in a dark burgundy robe which seems like the cloak of death itself.
Surprisingly for such a grim subject, there are a number of laugh-out-loud moments. In the accident and emergency ward the doctor is becoming annoyed by the noise of the patients waiting in the corridor. ‘Keep quiet or I’ll throw you all out’ he says. Later, when a spare operating surgery proves to be a problem, a doctor says, ‘I could take him to the crematorium. He keeps saying he’s cold anyway.’ (The same doctor has already told him to ‘jump up and down to warm up’ when he is on the stretcher waiting for his CAT scan.) At one point, Mioara, the nurse, who is weighing duty with compassion, exasperation and fatalism, says ‘I’ve been lugging him round all night’. ‘You’re exaggerating,’ says the doctor, ‘the night is still young’.
It's easy to forget, with Lazarescu’s spewing and his desecent into incoherence, and especially his final scenes in which he is stripped, washed and has his head shaved to be prepared for surgery, that this is actually a performance from an actor, Ion Fiscuteanu. Both he and the nurse, played by Luminita Gheorghiou, familiar from her role as the begging woman in Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, do much to suspend our disbelief while we watch.
In interview, Puiu has said that The Death of Mr Lazarescu is one of 6 proposed films set in the Bucharest suburbs, all showing different aspects of love. (Shades of Kieslowski here.) Lazarescu is about love for your fellow man – or lack of it in this case. In part it was inspired by a real-life case from the mid 1990s in which a man was left to die in the street after being refused treatment at a number of hospitals. Lazarescu’s condition is so serious that death would have arrived soon anyway, so the concern is with a dying man’s final hours. Having been subjected to the rigours of a health service which has done its best to finish him off, he maybe should have stayed at home in the company of the regal indifference of Mirandolina, Nusu and Fritz, his three beloved, flea-ridden cats.