Three Monkeys Online

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Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu

There was an advertisement for a mobile phone company before this film in the London cinema where I saw it. It presented a sequence of life-changing moments. A father stares from the screen and falteringly embarks upon a momentous confession, to a child ‘old enough to know now’. Or an actress, fixing the camera with her most solemn expression, tells it she wants to have its children. I can’t quite remember now how they related this to owning a mobile telephone. It was very touching anyway.

There’s a recurrent phrase in Cristi Puiu’s most recent film, the significance of which will not immediately be obvious to viewers outside Romania. In this story of a retired and widowed engineer’s last hours there’s a small matter on which one doctor after another seeks clarification, as the sick man is shunted through the small hours around Bucharest from one hospital after another. Who does he have with him? they all ask. Wife? Children? Siblings? His daughter has emigrated to Canada and his sister lives too far away to be there in time. The question is asked as if it’s a formality, a matter of form-filling. Time after time.

The better reviews of this film all discuss the relationship between the dying man and the paramedic duty-nurse who, as the night progresses, emerges as the dying man’s only champion in the world of the living. She is the only person he has with him. The film is the first of six stories about love set in the suburbs of Bucharest, in a conscious echo of Six Moral Tales by Eric Rohmer, Puiu’s favourite director. So the question of who Lazarescu has with him is partly a question about isolation – who any of us have ‘with us’. It’s a measure of the film’s success as a work of art that it does not depend on any knowledge of context – that it can speak to anyone anywhere.

The question, however, first arises before they ever reach a hospital. It is the paramedic who asks it of Lazarescu’s neighbours, before he is removed him from his flat. Hospitals, she says, are more likely to admit a patient to a ward if he or she is accompanied. The neighbours are not willing to accompany him, there are no relatives on hand and it turns out Bucharest’s hospitals are struggling to cope with casualties from a big bus crash. So from one hospital after another, Lazarescu and his increasingly indignant paramedic are turned away.

But this still leaves one aspect of the question unattended to, and I have not seen a single western review which picked up on it. Because it isn’t only a question about our existential loneliness. What is being asked is whether there is someone with the patient who will bribe the nurses and doctors to make this old man’s survival worth their while. There isn’t anyone, so they let him die. Context may not be everything, but in the film about this particular death, it isn’t nothing either.

This is where the ‘kind of’ part of this review begins. England is currently engaging in its latest ugly scene about immigration. Prominent ‘Labour’ MPs, supremely well informed as I’m sure they are about the new accession states, don’t hesitate to metaphor-mix in public over those waves of floods of armies of immigrants surging and swirling and driving down the road towards us from Romania and Bulgaria. According to recent reports exactly 45,000 of them are criminals.

The disclaimer at the end of this film’s credits specifies, naturally enough, that any resemblance between institutions portrayed in this film and actually existing institutions is purely coincidental. I wouldn’t mind betting that line drew as big a chuckle as any from Romanian audiences. Corruption in the Romanian health service is only one kind of corruption among others, and in terms of actual scale probably not the most important. But it touches more people’s lives more directly than any other kind. The prevailing sense of helplessness is nowhere more acute than in dealings with the health service. ‘Any resemblance’ between the arrogance and pettiness of most of the doctors in this film and the behaviour of actual Romanian hospital staff, is most certainly not ‘coincidental’ at all. The way they get away with it, in the real Romania as in this film, points up the way class systems have re-configured and if anything sharpened rather than reduced in these supposedly ‘liberated’ and westernising societies.

But it’s a work of art, not a polemic. None of the characters is a mere illustration of some general principle. Cristi Puiu has probably done more with this film to explain his country than any journalist, whether sympathetic or not. But he has done so by using a style of ciné verité which reminded many American reviewers of the controversial documentaries of Frederick Wiseman. Since the Sixties Wiseman has made superbly crafted films detailing the lives of America’s invisible ones. In a review of his film about life in a mental hospital, Titicut Follies, the New Republic wrote that “What sticks, what really hurts is the sight of human life made cheap and betrayed.” Asked in 1992 if his work was intended to effect change in the world Wiseman responded “I like to think there might be a connection… I think if it does, it’s elliptical, subterranean, circuitous and certainly not measurable…”

For me Puiu’s film was reminiscent more of that earlier Kieslowski for whom the commonplace is somehow made to signify in ways bordering on the almost mythical, as in the hero’s full name – Lazarescu Dante Remus. Concrete detail bearing, however ironically, that kind of cultural load is clearly meant to matter. On what basis then do we reduce the aims of such a film to purely abstract stylistic or philosophical ones? Kieslowski, too, was an artist first and foremost – but by the very eloquence of his testimony he took a position on freedom of expression in Communist Poland. A real work of art, any real work of art is no more reducible to its style than it is to a ‘message’.

Misfits that we are, then, let’s place the emphasis squarely where we are continually enjoined not to. Let’s look for a message. Only one. We won’t claim it’s the only one and we don’t prevent anyone else from searching for another, or none, as they prefer. But it seems legitimate to look, at least. And, as we search, to draw both from the film and – horror – from current debates about east European ‘integration’.

The opening shot shows a Dacia, an old one, parked outside one of the Communist-built apartment blocks in which most urban Romanians live. It is dark and there is no street lighting. Lazarescu lives here in a small second-floor flat, with the TV jabbering continually, scrounging from neighbours who disapprove of his cats, and suddenly one evening there’s a stomach pain. The film is grainy and the camera is hand-held. So leave now if it was Superman Returns you were really looking for.

Lazarescu’s living conditions are immediately recognisable to anyone who has spent time in the non-touristic parts of Romania. This is not going to be a film which sucks up to its audience. He is presented as an ailing Everyman figure. ‘It’s a question of mortality,’ he will mumble later, slurring his vowels as his brain begins to go, as yet another unsympathetic medic prods and pokes.

Their lack of sympathy, as explained above, is closely connected to his ‘having nobody’. There is a sister who never arrives from Turgu Mures, because Turgu Mures is several hours by train from Bucharest. She is due to arrive at 6am that morning, the paramedic keeps telling hospital staff. ‘So he has nobody,’ they keep answering. Just as Lazarescu’s name whispers continually of a resurrection which is nowhere in sight, so this sister o
f his is the deus ex machina which never appears, never resolves anything. Puiu may have set out to make a film about love by depicting its absence: he ended up making one about a world characterised as much by its multiple absences as anything else.

Just as Frederick Wiseman’s work was taken as criticism of the way America is run – the film I mentioned earlier was banned in the US from 1967 to 1991 – so surely it is reasonable to interpret Lazarescu as, among other things, oblique criticism of ‘life’ as it actually happens in what will be, from next January, an EU state. The firework displays which will mark this event, full of big-hearted euro-family sentiment, are being organised. Speeches about the European inheritance are being written. Emigration from Romania has already been identified by west European politicians as a pretext for ‘colourful’ language. It will get more colourful as January approaches. Journalists will be dispatched to ‘explore both sides of the issue’ and outstanding articles will be the result. The inauthentic discourses will multiply, rather like the doctors discussing their new mobile phones or squabbling over precedence, as Lazarescu and his paramedic wait, as the night drags on.

Because this is a society which knows all about dei ex machinis which don’t show. The re-united Europe which 1989 seemed to promise is quite a lot like that sister from Turgu Mures. Only the night in question, the real one, has lasted 17 years and nobody seriously expects it to end next January.

The ways in which affluent Europe dodged its responsibilities toward countries like Romania are worth exploring. Alongside the scare stories about immigration. Much of western Europe after all – or is the old continent’s memory suddenly so short? – was helped out by massive American aid after the Second World War. The United States of that era was a more idealistic place, but it acted not only out of altruism. It knew that a prosperous Europe was in its own interests – not only as a buffer region with the Soviet Union but as a democratic society in its own right and as a trading partner too.

So as those societies ravaged by Communism finally tore down the wall which divided them from luckier free western Europe, luckier free western Europe…. did what? In cash terms the aid made available to eastern Europe by the EU is already more than western Europe received through the Marshall Plan after 1945. There seems to be a sign up in every other little place you pass through in Romania advertising some EU-funded infrastructure project. Then why are these countries still so demoralised? Why do so many of the young want to leave?

Perhaps because the re-construction required there and now is of a different kind to what was needed here after 1945. Cities have not been reduced to rubble – they have been built badly. Most of them are depressing to look at but by and large people aren’t actually without shelter. No, the reconstruction needed is more inward, and therefore more difficult, this time because the experience of dictatorship lasted so much longer, is so much more ingrained.

It’s an idea which these places need, as well as ‘structural funds’. The EU prides itself on embodying unspectacular virtues. But it runs the risk of looking downright prosaic if it can’t also embody some kind of belief in itself. Why, for example, as the politicians and pundits rage against migration from Romania and Bulgaria, is there no coverage in the mainstream western media of the background to this phenomenon? When several hundred thousand young people, seventeen years after the end of Communism, vote with their feet against the way their countries are being run, surely that’s partly because the model used to reform those countries has, in some way, not worked. The model used has been the western model of indiscriminate privatisation. Of wealth always congratulated and rewarded, no matter how it has been made.

Migration from these countries has not come out of ‘nowhere’. Young east Europeans, raised now on a combination of western advertising and that state of chaos dignified by economists as ‘transition’, want to leave. West European statesmen, it is true, did their best – we all did. We waved the magic wand of unregulated markets at these chronically corrupt societies, and then looked the other way as former Communists proceeded to stitch up their own countries with admirable thoroughness.

It’s not difficult to see why we looked away. Young westerners find little to console them in places like Romania. Environmentalism often meets with suspicion. We seem spoilt – asking them to forgo what they have not even had the chance to enjoy, let alone grow tired of. Our ambivalence about consumerism came cheap – it was right there for us to refuse. It’s a more complicated matter for someone who grew up in a flat like Mr Lazarescu’s, having all the trinkets dangled before him or her from billboards and TV screens which were the only colourful features in the landscape. Our ‘teachings’ on homosexuality or minority rights seem smug. The decades we in the west had to puzzle these things out in something like freedom were denied them – and now in addition we come smiling at their ‘conservatism’?

For me, though, that is just what west Europeans stand to gain from reckoning more plainly with our collective failure after 1989. The rhetoric of brotherhood at the time meant in practise an open field for indiscriminate privatisation. It meant spiralling wealth for former Communists, ever-deepening poverty for everyone else. The damage has been done. Making the case for some European ‘idea’, for something other than more PR and more corporations, usually meets with little more than incredulous smiles.

A dose of which is surely just what western idealists need. They need to know how puzzling their ‘answers to everything’ actually sound to most of the world. Why on earth should the Indian couple labouring night and day to buy their first car pay any attention to the university graduate from North London? Why indeed, unless that graduate has taken the trouble to familiarise himself with other contexts in which his beliefs have to be argued for, where they don’t form part of some cosy consensus of the enlightened. The Romania of Mr Lazarescu is as good a place as any to start that process of familiarisation.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu could not have been released at a better moment. Its implications for us now are as profound as those of Orwell’s How the Poor Die in its day. Don’t let the newspapers or the know-nothing MPs ‘explain’ matters to you. Go and see this wonderful film, and think about it for yourself. Who does Mr Lazarescu have with him? What is that question about?

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