Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu) -- impersonal systems and judgmentalism

Director: Cristi Puiu, 2005.

Most of us have had some experience with hospitals. When it is dark and late, and we need to go to the emergency room, we know that we are in for a long night. But at least in the United States we can expect some closure. Writer-director Puiu gives us a glimpse into the Romanian health care system in this highly acclaimed dark comedy.
Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is an old man who lives alone in his small Bucarest apartment with several cats. Plagued with recent headaches and stomach complaints, he calls an ambulance to take him to hospital. Drinking and popping pain-pills while waiting, he calls again when there has been slow response.

As the waiting drags on, Lazarescu crosses the corridor to his neighbor's apartment seeking more powerful drugs. His neighbors berate him for his drinking but come into his home to help. While there, they do what neighbors do: they talk and complain. While the husband, Sandu (Doru Ana) discusses borrowed powertools and future fishing trips, his enabler wife, Mariana (Monica Barladeanu), simply wants to bring Lazarescu some moussaka!

This is one of the strengths of the movie. It portrays real life. These could be your next-door neighbors; they are not the pretty actors we see in American movies, but bald and fat people. By avoiding any musical soundtrack, Puiu does not play our emotions like a violin, as in most Hollywood films. We are left to feel what we would feel naturally.

When the ambulance finally arrives, paramedic Marioara (Mirela Cioaba) arrives on the scene. At first she is ready to prescribe some medicine and leave, but Lazarescu's condition takes a turn. She diagnoses colon cancer. But she is just a paramedic not a doctor. When she asks Sandu or his wife to accompany Lazarescu to the hospital, these good Samaritans suddenly withdraw, not willing to go the extra mile. Lazarescu is on his own. He has no immediate family he can call on to go with him.

At the first hospital, he is treated poorly by the doctors who want to move him on and out. They disagree that he has colon cancer. They want a CT scan done, but not at their hospital. To complicate matters, a car accident has left multiple people dead and has packed the ER rooms of all local hospitals. There is no room left.

As the ambulance takes Lazarescu to hospital after hospital, Marioara is his sole advocate. Time and time again the predominantly young doctors dismiss her concerns regarding Lazarescu's colon. Instead they treat her with scorn. She is merely a paramedic, not a doctor. Their arrogance drips from their tongues. It makes us reflect on our own approach to people who are "less educated" than ourselves. We may have one or more degrees but that does not mean we have a monopoly on wisdom or truth. When we stop listening to others who may know more than us, who can teach us something, we are dangerously close to educational suicide. There is no place for arrogance in the Christian life. Our finitude means we can never know everything. There will always be something that someone can teach us.

At the heart of this film is an indictment of the impersonality of the Romanian socialist health system. It is seen to be overly bureaucratic, not caring about the people. To the doctors, Lazarescu is simply another faceless patient on their list. In contrast to them, Marioara's is compaasion and concern for Lazarescu is the lone bright light in a dark night. The one person ancillary to the system is the one person who wants to make a difference.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a little overlong and the last twenty minutes seem to drag. But the ending is non-judgmental and leaves the viewer hanging. There is no clear closure. But perhaps that is the point. There are no easy answers when it comes to the issues of health care. The system is not perfect, not even close. But it is the one the Romanians have. And it is on display here.

A major sub-theme running through the movie is that of judgment. Virtually all the doctors in the various hospitals pour judgment on poor Mr Lazarescu for drinking. With a prior surgery for stomach ulcer, he should have known better than to do this. Instead of sympathy he gets scorn. Really, Lazarescu wanted only two things: a) to be treated with respect and b) to be healed or helped. The doctors had a duty to perform but it seemed that duty did not include dignity.

How often do we cast judgment on others? Jesus warned us, "Do not judge or you too will be judged" (Matt. 7:1). We may have our own problems that need to be addressed before we look at the specks in other people's eyes (Matt. 7:3-5). Will we be like Marioara and show care and compassion, treating the elderly and dying with dignity? Or will we be Pharisaic, like the Romanian doctors?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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