"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu": Feeling pain in an unfeeling world

The Romanian film "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" isn't for everybody, and through most of its 2 ½-hour running time I was convinced it wasn't for me either. Then something happened, something most movies can't pull off: Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), the ailing, lonely man at its center, had come to matter to me.

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," with Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Gabriel Spahiu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru. Directed by Cristi Puiu, from a screenplay by Puiu and Razvan Radulescu. 153 minutes. Rated R for language and brief nudity. In Romanian with English subtitles. Varsity, through Thursday.

The film is a long night's journey for this 60ish widower, who's feeding his cats in his untidy, dark apartment when he realizes he feels very unwell. As the headache and stomachache magnify, he calls an ambulance and waits patiently for its arrival. Neighbors, while not unsympathetic, criticize him for his drinking; his sister and brother-in-law, on the phone, do likewise. A medical technician finally shows up, and off Mr. Lazarescu goes down a dark rabbit-hole of modern medicine: transferred from hospital to hospital, condescended to by doctors, lying quietly on a stretcher while medical staff squabble above him.

"The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" is being marketed as a black comedy, but the laughs here are only of the most bitter, ironic variety. Filmmaker Cristi Puiu has tapped into a universal nightmare: What if we were dying and nobody cared? The neighbors don't want to accompany Mr. Lazarescu to the hospital; his daughter lives in faraway Canada, and his only nearby family — his sister and brother-in-law — are slow to respond. Though the no-nonsense medical technician Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) treats him with brusque kindness, the other medical staff are mostly dismissive or worse. "What's that?" asks one doctor, indicating Mr. Lazarescu on his stretcher. And many of the nurses seem to move in slow motion, numbed by the pressures of the emergency room.

Much of the movie seems to move in slow motion, too, with long stretches of not-always-scintillating conversation, and endless dark or harshly lit rooms. But there's something about Fiscuteanu's quietly desperate performance (with much of the emotion conveyed through his eyes), that gets under your skin. By its end, as Mr. Lazarescu is prepared to see Dr. Anghel (one of many symbolic names here), the film's title reverberates as a sad echo; its ending seeming both irrevocable and unbearable.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com