A sick man, on a tour of hospital hell

A 2005 Romanian film about a patient trying to find a hospital bed now seems more timely than ever

Iaon Fiscuteanu in The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu.

The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu came out in 2005 and cemented the cinematic potency of the Romanian New Wave and their brand of droll, deadpan and relentlessly realistic movies about life in the ex-socialist state. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2005 and now, 16 years later, The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu is buried deep in the algorithm of Netflix. But it's there if you look, and I'm bringing it up today because its story of public healthcare apocalypse and accumulated absurdities experienced by a patient trying to find a hospital bed seems more timely, more wickedly serendipitous, than ever.

The film is not about a pandemic, though it needn't be for us to see a resemblance to what's going on in many places around the world, say, Italy last year and India or Thailand now. In this 155-minute fiction, a 62-year-old man who lives with three cats in a run-down Bucharest flat gets sick. First he has a headache then an abdominal pain, and it doesn't help that he also drinks. The cantankerous Lazarescu Dante Remus -- note the middle name -- calls an ambulance and after a long wait, a paramedic nurse arrives at 10pm (it's a Saturday, we're told, luckily it's not a Sunday). Reluctant to take him at first, the nurse finally realises that the man's condition is worrying and puts him in a van converted to an emergency vehicle.

From there, patient and nurse begin a harrowing nocturnal journey punctuated by moments of morbid humour as they shuttle from one emergency ward to another and another and another, in each of which Lazarescu is alternatively treated with indifference or condescension (Why did you drink? Your illness is your own fault!). None of the doctors on duty agrees to admit him, out of either cynically personal or irrationally bureaucratic excuses, even when it becomes clear that the old man needs an urgent operation. A man is dying and a doctor demands, what, his signature? It gets worse because that same night, a major bus accident overloads the hospitals with the dead and injured.

So a sick man is trapped in a sicker system -- or a sicker world. The film starts out like a grim joke that gets darker by the minute, as Lazarescu (Iaon Fiscuteanu) assumes the role of Dante and takes a guided tour of hell that is the bowels of drably-lit state hospitals staffed by doctors who're too tired, too fed-up or too preoccupied with other things. There's no need for a spoiler warning here when the film's title already threatens to give away how the old man's night is supposed to end.

It's a given to read The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu as a critique of Romania's healthcare system (another film that discusses a similar topic is the Oscar-nominated documentary Colectiv, which had been showing in Bangkok theatres before the latest lockdown). When The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu came out in the mid-2000s, there were reports of Romanian doctors posting online to confirm what the film depicts, if the real-world hospitals at night weren't even worse, they said. And if the sight of this old man with scraggly beard and filthy sweater negotiating his way through the labyrinth of medical bureaucracy with the help of a sympathetic paramedic gives us a scare, watching the film now -- in the present-day context, when we hear heartbreaking stories of old people dying at home after failing to secure medical assistance -- reminds us that the horror is closer to home than it may first appear.

But The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, which was directed by Cristi Puiu, isn't just a square slap in the face of state inefficiency. The film is about many things else, too: mortality, sympathy, the fragility and absurdity of life, which are sometimes indistinguishable. It's a warning how the rigidity of a system is capable of overwriting human sympathy. And while the mood is grim, The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu is often very funny: the dark humour coursing through the film is integral to its unblinking realism, which perfectly portrays how tragedy and farce are separated by an invisible line. It's a film about hell; but what makes it worth watching is the humans -- bad, good, kind, fascistic, flawed -- that populate it.

Puiu, the director, is a key figure in the Romanian New Wave, a group of (male) filmmakers who came to international recognition in the early 2000s through their stark portrayal of post-Communist Romania, lacing observational realism with wry, sometimes macabre humour. Here, the camera always watches the characters from a middle distance, not too close to foster sentimentality, and not too far to feel detached. The scenes are played out with hardly any cuts, which makes the journey in and out of hospitals seem long and continuous.

Iaon Fiscuteanu, as Lazarescu, and Luminita Gheorghiu, as Mioara, the nurse who lugs the patient around in her van, are among a cast whose natural bearings convince you that you were watching a documentary filmed late at night from a crowded hallway of a hospital. But also watch the actors who play all the doctors; these are not the medical heroes who save lives from the jaws of death like we often see in Thai movies or soap operas. Rather, they're exhausted, sometimes angry, always condescending, or at best they're perfunctory, in a hurry to end their graveyard shift. I wonder if doctors protested the film when it was released in Romania -- a fate that I'm sure a Thai film of a similar subject would suffer.

By the time Lazarescu gets to the fourth hospital, dawn approaches and there's little life left in him. What has driven the poor soul to such state of helplessness? His drinking, the absence of his daughter, who lives in Canada, or the slow response of the ambulance, or the doctors who refuse to admit him? The tragedy of life is that there's no definite answer, and the tragicomedy of being poor in an inadequate healthcare system -- pandemic or not -- is to keep hoping that you will never, ever fall mortally ill.

  • The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu
  • Starring Doru Ana, Monica Barladeanu, Alina Berzunteanu
  • Directed by Cristi Puiu
  • Streaming on Netflix