The Death of Mr Lazarescu

26/04/2022

A Restrictive Disdain

Ushering in a new type of cinema, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu manages like other Romanian films of its moment (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days1208: East of BucharestPolice, AdjectiveAurora and Child’s Pose for example), to create out of a form a pervasive mood, whether the film is set during the end of the Ceausescu regime or during post-communist capitalism. What this mood is might best be described as pusillanimous self-regard, with characters often both timid and assertive, protecting their status or determining their self-interest. It might casually be the receptionist in the late-communist-set 4, Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, determined to make life difficult for the central character as she tries to book a hotel room, or more seriously the mother in Child’s Pose whose grown-up son has run someone over and the mother is determined to use all her influence to avoid the man taking responsibility.

The mother in Child’s Pose is played by Luminița Gheorghiu, a regular in the Romanian new wave films, and in this instance, in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a far more sympathetic figure, one capable of ruefully containing in her demeanour a constant sense of inevitable disappointment in her job as a paramedic whose advice, help and humanity are usually dismissed. The film’s eponymous character is an engineer in his early sixties who has clearly been for some time drinking himself towards the death the film contains in its title. The film isn’t shy in telling us that here is a self-destructive character who will be helped along by the general indifference of the Romanian health care system. He has been drinking a litre of hard liquor the day he is taken in and the neighbour, Mihaela (Dana Dogaru), tells Mioara, the paramedic, that she hasn’t been too happy with Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu); he has turned her husband, Sandru (Doru Ana), into a heavy drinker as well. We are also informed that Lazarescu’s wife died almost a decade earlier, and that his daughter lives in Toronto. He alleviates his loneliness with various cats around the flat but they seem to be contributing to his death as well. Sandru comments on all the cat hair and sure enough Lazarescu lives in a midden: papers piled up, no more than a piece of bread to eat and cat hair everywhere. 

This is the environment the film lays out in its early scenes, helped along by a moment when Lazarescu will vomit over his slippers. Later in the film, he will pee himself and defecate in his trousers, but all this is presented in what might be described as a matter-of-fact way but doesn’t quite capture the tone of a work that would influence so many other Romanian films that followed it. It is a camera style that takes from the Dogma movement an ad hoc approach to the image but instead of the hyperactive curiosity of the camera to be found in Festen and The Idiots, it seems closer to disdainful indifference. If so many people in New Romanian Cinema are treating each other with contempt, what better way of showing that contemptuousness than with a camera consistent with that disdain? Whether the camera stays still or moves, or bobs around a scene, it is a style that suggests interest without much curiosity, indicating a need to observe without a demand to dramatise. True, when Lazarescu vomits up blood threads the camera darts from Sandru to Lazarescu as the neighbour leans over, but there is of course no music nor a cut to Sandru’s wife looking concerned. To do so would have given the film an anxious interest not quite matched by the neighbours themselves, who bail out of accompanying Lazarescu to hospital despite Mioara’s requests. They would probably be pleased to see the back of him, all things considered — the cat crap on the stairs, obviously the flat smells, and there is all that drinking which has turned the husband to booze as well. 

It would be too harsh to call the neighbours bad samaritans, which might suggest crossing the road to avoid helping others. No, most of the time people are more inclined to stay on the same side of the road but look on, aware that a person in need is a person making demands on one’s conscience that it is better acknowledged as a nuisance generated by the sick. When Lazarescu arrives at the first of several hospitals that will attend to him as cursorily as they can get away with, Dr Ardelean (Florin Zamfirescu) has a Beelzebub bedside manner. Asking Lazarescu about his drinking and smoking, he says “keep it up!” and adds, when Lazarescu talks about problems with his ulcer, “no you have head problems….You pour alcohol into your body and then come to me for repairs.” He may have a point but best perhaps to address that elsewhere at a health conference, not when pressing hard into the patient’s liver in a moment that is part diagnostic, part sadistic. The camera looks on, as though wary of a reaction shot to Moiara, who is seen within the frame along with the sadist, his junior colleague and the hapless Lazarescu lying on his back. Such a shot might arrive at the sentimental, and Puiu’s work is nothing if not ferociously resistant to sentiment. Instead, it settles for the caustic, with numerous critics commenting on the comedic aspect. But the humour is never telegraphed, never a condition of the scene but a by-product of it. If the humour were palliative it could pass for a comedy, as though its purpose were to generate humour out of an event by making sure that the horror of the situation was contained by the comedic that encompasses it. But such an approach would be in danger of turning the film into a generic work, and one says this not at all to condemn the genre of comedy but to insist on seeing The Death of Mr Lazarescu as incidentally comic rather than generically so. When the DVD insists on putting in bold letters a quote from the Guardian calling the film “a comic masterpiece”, this seems a misplaced application. An apple may be tart but that doesn’t make it a citrus fruit. The Death of Mr Lazarescu is funny (and tart) but anyone watching it for its humour might be in for a far grimmer time than expected. Kind Hearts and Coronets, Harold and Maude and After Hours are all brilliantly funny but they are generically so if we accept that what makes a comedy comic as its priority is often a premise that emphasises the humour. In Kind Hearts…someone who is eighth in line to an inheritance intends to kill off all those in front of him; in Harold and Maude, Harold finds ingenious ways to fake his suicide for a laugh and, in After Hours, a yuppie looking for a fun night out gets caught in various nightmarishly absurd scenarios. To say that a lonely alcoholic gets bumped from one hospital to the next and more or lies dies because of the medical profession’s indifference isn’t much of a comic premise and this is why we invoke the incidental rather than the central: that it may have horribly insensitive moments that might well make us laugh but the comic isn’t its purpose.

In a scene with the second doctor, Dr Dragos (Adrian Titien) asks Lazarescu what is on the doctor’s wrist, namely a watch, and the patient says “if you know, why are you asking me”. It is funny as the doctor is going through a necessary procedure to find out if the patient is compos mentis and the irony is that he is and he isn’t: Lazarescu has retained his sense of humour (just as he retained his dignity after the first doctor insulted him and Lazarescu says “I don’t need your help), but he isn’t in a fit state to make the sort of decision the doctor wants him to make: trying to establish if the patient is of sound mind for legal rather than medical reasons. We find out that the doctor is willing to risk a serious operation where the patient might die, but only if Lazarescu signs a form saying that he is okay with it. Moiara reckons that he isn’t in a condition to sign anything. The comic moment is contained within a greater ethical one and the film leaves us wondering if the Romanian medical system is in no fit state of its own. 

Yet the film is careful to avoid caricature and curb the satirical: the doctors all seem competent at their jobs but unwilling to commit to a diagnosis that might cost them money or reputation - and keen to tell others like Moiara to mind their own diagnostic business if they deem them too lowly to have an opinion at all. The film covers one evening, and just as the title character is taken to hospital, at the same time there has been a terrible bus crash that crowds out other cases. Why wouldn’t doctors despair at this man who has been drinking himself to death over years when they have to attend to a major accident? The poor passengers would have had no choice; there Lazarescu is taking up valuable medical time when all he had to do was cease drinking. This isn’t the film’s perspective, of course, but its present within the material as a way of comprehending the caustic comments by professionals the film wants to show as often brutal and disregarding but also harried and overworked. It helps give nuance to what can seem a satire on Romanian health care, as if health is rare and care frequently absent. When asked if the carelessness shown to Mr. Lazarescu should be viewed as a collective failure or a failure of the individuals, a problem of national character, or an institutional problem showing the failure of modern health care, Puiu reckoned “…this carelessness is the name of the interest we have for ourselves given by others, the dark side of egoism…” (Film Comment) While films like Hospital and Britannia Hospital are more obviously satirical accounts of the profession, Puiu’s might be better described as an interrogation, or what Puiui calls a “testimony” (Film Comment), as though utilising the hospital environment for the purposes of an absurdist investigation into human frailty, one that looks like it is about bodily debilitation but investigates even more shrewdly the egoistically troublesome — as if no matter how much money was thrown at health care, we could expect an egoistic carelessness to accompany it. 

We needn’t assume this is Puiu saying that whether healthcare is private, public or a mixture makes no difference. That would be another question and one might unfairly assume the answer because it is hardly couched as a question. Hospital writer Paddy Chayefsky was frustrated with the private American health care system: and was “inspired to write this attack on institutionalized medicine after his wife’s unhappy experience in a hospital while suffering from a neurological disorder. The incompetence and hospital staff apathy she encountered so enraged Chayefsky that he funneled his frustrations into this screenplay.” (Cinema Sojourns) In Britannia Hospital, Anderson “lampoons the excesses of the National Health, but also uses its titular institution as a microcosmic cross section of society in the early years of Thatcherism.” (Slant) Covering one day, Anderson combines a royal hospital visit with large-scale strikes all the better to sum up the state of an antiquated health system and an antiquated nation. Hospital is a lot drier and observant than Anderson’s film but they both can easily pass for satires of the medical profession, while Puiu is interested in saying something about the human generally that might assume health care an exceptional environment where petty egoism would be transcended. But no, Puiu says, here too you can expect people to act with that pusillanimous self-regard we can expect to find everywhere else. “It is more about a lack of responsibility than about slowness. We Romanians are as intelligent and stupid and kind and evil and talented as any other people on this planet. The problem we have is related to courage. We don’t have the guts to assume our responsibilities, to accept our failures and our mistakes and our crimes, to accept who we are.” (Film Comment) But rather than seeing this as a Romanian characteristic, better to see it as a characteristic of Romanian cinema. In other words, what Puiu and others reveal, through contemporary Romanian film, is a characteristic prevalent everywhere but passing through a particular nation. “They are not Romanian stories”, Puiu said, “but stories from Romania” (Sarajevo Film Festival)

To understand this question a little better we can say just a few words about Romanian history, and far more on the style the film adopts and how an aspect of the two come together to produce a work that is funny without being satirical, caustic without being cruel, and assertive while retaining an odd hesitancy. There have been numerous documentaries on Nicolai Ceausescu, and perhaps part of the fascination rests less in his leadership than in his demise. His death was a horrible example of reality TV, with Ceausescu’s and his wife’s executed bodies shown to the public as proof that this was finally over. As a radio presenter announced: The anti-Christ died. Oh, what wonderful news!” (Guardian) Other former Communist countries had oppressive, all-powerful and/or charismatic leaders but many of them had long since died when Communism fell. Stalin passed away many years before Communism did, Yugoslavia’s Tito in 1980 and Albania’s Hoxha died in 1985. All were feared and perhaps only Tito loved, while other countries’ dictatorial aspect was evident more in the system than in the individual, with the Stasi in Eastern Europe for example an abstract fear as the leaders would change. In Romania, the hatred felt towards Ceausescu potentially also created a self-hatred: that here was a buffoon who was creating fear and food shortages, who decided to pay off IMF loans rather than concentrating on his own people’s needs. The country was being run by a man who left school at eleven and had his speeches ghost-written by others. Silviu Brucan “was asked to ghost-write articles for the semi-literate Ceausescu” (Independent). 

A country run by Stalin needn’t generate individual self-loathing but chiefly self-preservation, but one run by Ceausescu allows the two to rub up against each other. In Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, the film hinges on those who were or were not revolutionary heroes. If they were in the town square before 12:08, they were heroic protestors risking their lives under dictatorship; if after 12:08 they knew Ceausescu had fled and his regime was over. They might not have been opportunists but neither were they heroes. 12:08 East of Bucharest is more obviously comedic than The Death of Mr Lazarescu but they both share an interest in behaviour that shows troublesome self-interest. In Porumboiu’s film, the guests on the TV show that is celebrating the event years later are claiming a heroic status that proves untenable. In The Death of Mr Lazarescu, we have the medical professions as avenging angels as much as angels of mercy. The doctor who prods away at Lazarescu’s kidney seems to be punishing as readily as diagnosing. It is as though the self-loathing of living under a crumbling regime run by a half-fool meets with the cruelty meted out to the president once he has been toppled, and continues post-dicatorship. Romania wasn’t the only country during the anti-Communist revolutions where violence was evident: Lithuania for example where more than a dozen protestors were killed. But in Romania “a military crackdown against protesters saw 66 people killed and more than 300 wounded, according to some estimates. But the violence wasn’t enough to stop the protests, and thousands of people began to take to the streets. ”(Politico) The way Puiu describes how and when they killed Ceausescu captures well this cynical cruelty practised by numerous characters in The Death of Mr Lazarescu: “We assassinated Ceausescu on December 25. We could have assassinated him on the 24[th] or the 26[th]. But we are too attached to fictions, so we had to assassinate him on Christmas.” (East European Film Bulletin) Alexandru Leo Serban puts it even more harshly: "Romanians are hard to please: they were born angry, they live grumbling, and they won't die until they also exasperate others." (Film Criticism)  

It is always suspect drawing consequences from causes when discussing film in the context of politics, perhaps a too easy way to say something about a nation at a given moment of time: that many films were capturing the paranoia of Watergate in the US, the jingoism of the UK at the time of the Falklands, and so on. But all we wish to propose is that there is a very special tension in recent Romanian cinema, as though showing the worst after many years under communism where the ‘best’ was forcefully put on show, evident in The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu, which relies exclusively on footage from the archive showing the dictator in various usually favourable lights, all the while implicitly allowing us to see how much of this was a lie. After all, if he was so wonderful, why did the people kill him?

But a caustic, ironic and cruel cinema wouldn’t have been quite enough to generate a wave, and nobody more than Puiu was vital to this shift formally. Monica Filomon notes “Romanian critics…have underlined the major leap by Romanian cinema after Puiu’s 2005 Cannes prize [for The Death of Mr Lazarescu], separating it into two major “eras” -BC and AC- (before and after Cristi).” Watching a Romanian film like Nae Caranfil’s Philanthropy not knowing when it was made (2002), we would assume it was a BC film and naive or contrary were it made after 2005. It isn’t that Mungui, Porumboiu, Radu Muntean, Calin Peter Netser and Radu Jude have copied Puiu; it is more that there are certain shifts that cannot be ignored and to pretend they haven’t taken place is usually a form of naivety rather than a sign of integrity. To make a French film after the Nouvelle vague without acknowledging at all the shift would have been to have made the filmmaker seem ignorant, unless one was the sort of director (like Bresson or Tati), who so influenced the wave that their work showed prescience and had little need to absorb influences that had absorbed it. 

Formally, vital to this new Romanian cinema was the long-take, the general absence of non-diegetic music, the mundane situation and a camera that was rarely still yet neither quite active. The long take as a method of course goes as far back as Andre Bazin, theoretically, and what he sought, and sometimes found, in neo-realist cinema and even in American film of the forties. Neo-realist film rarely eschewed a music track but the Dardennes and Kiarostami did, and in very different ways added new possibilities to realism: a verisimilitude that included greater audio density. Bazin saw the mundane in various neo-realism scenes but none more so than when the maid makes coffee in Umberto D. Instead of “two or three shots”, Bazin says that director Vittorio “De Sica replaces this narrative unit with a series of ‘smaller’ events: she wakes up; she crosses the hall; he drowns the ants; and so on.” (What is Cinema? Vol II) Yet it was the Nouvelle vague that would make the mundane provocative, with Belmondo and Seberg in Breathless lying in bed chatting, or walking along the street. But perhaps it would be useful to distinguish the mundane from the un-elliptical. In the mundane we have empty events, moments that could have been excised, but with the un-elliptical we have the necessary expanded. It is mundane to have characters talking about the weather or their favourite soft drink before a heist; it is un-elliptical to show the journey from the apartment to the bank, to show them stopping at traffic lights, caught in a traffic jam. This may of course serve a narrative function (to show how busy the streets are and how difficult it might be for the getaway driver after the heist) but that would be the achievement of a narrative filmmaker who has learnt from the possibilities neo-realism and the Nouvelle vague instigated. Equally, we can think of the camera in Dogma films, most especially Festen, which is hyperactively adventurous, banging into objects, hanging out of car windows, looking down from ceilings. This wasn’t fly on the wall but the busiest of bees buzzing around the environment. If all these formal aspects of the New Romanian Cinema can be found in various incarnations before it, what makes it so new? 

First of all, the mundane contains within it often a sense of urgency: for all the apparent indifference to event in the style, important things are taking place: an abortion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a man in dire need of medical help in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a mother trying to keep her son out of jail after a hit and run in Child’s Pose, while in Aurora a divorcee goes on a killing spree, and in Police, Adjective, a surveillance operation (however insignificant) takes place. But mundanity there is, whether it is the abortionist stopping off and having a few words with his mother in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the flirtatious behaviour between a doctor and his partner, here, or Sandru discussing with the upstairs neighbour buying wine on the cheap. It can give to events a frustrating sense of indifference in the face of the urgent, and we might wonder how much of this moral failing rests in the characters or in the film simply including moments that other films would leave out. Is it especially insensitive to flirt a little at work, or obnoxious to discuss a minor trade deal while your ill neighbour leaves the room? Equally, the films often offer the un-elliptical, whether it is the journey the central character makes after her friend’s abortion in 4, Months… and the lengthy single take when she joins her boyfriend’s family, or the minutes given over to getting to the hospital in the old ambulance here. It is often the urgency of situation meeting the lack of urgency in the style that can give to New Romanian Cinema a fruitful disjunction. It is a disjunction that the camera nevertheless proposes in its twitchiness. In The Death of Mr Lazarescu, the camera is rarely still: whether watching on as the bullying doctor pushes into Lazarescu’s liver, or in the opening establishing shot on the block of flats in which Lazarescu lives, the camera has a shakiness that isn’t agitative (as we find in Dogma), immediate (as in the Dardennes’ Rosetta) or tense (evident in Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday or United 93, but aloof. If Luc Dardenne created the term ‘corps-camera (body camera)’ (Art Forum) to describe how the brothers worked on creating a camera that would stick close to a character’s body, the ostensibly similar style here insists on a space between the camera and the body. It has the observational sense of documentary meeting the dramatic demands of crisis but refuses to use the tools of drama (close ups, music and reaction shots) to capture the sense of urgency.

It is this that makes New Romanian Cinema singular, creating an ethical rather than an empathic (Rosetta) or dissident (The Idiots) relationship with film. So often the films ask, what would you do in a similar situation? Would you be the good samaritan who goes to the hospital with your neighbour, would you help your friend abort a child even if it was illegal, would you do all you could to protect your son if he accidentally ran someone over, or in, Graduation, would you help your daughter pass her exams corruptly after an attack leaves her unable to focus her attention? Even if we are usually with a given character in the film (Otilia in 4 Months…, the father in The Graduation), this doesn’t create immediate identification but a constantly hovering ethos that leaves us unsure of the right thing to do. This needn't rule out exceptional ethical behaviour (Otilia in 4 Months; Mioara here) but it doesn’t allow for ready identification with it either. The pusillanimous context is always greater than the deed, however honourable, which, while making the deed all the greater, is one that can never quite be wrestled from the broader milieu. For all Mioara’s decency, she is still often a barometer for the indecency of others, for their condescending remarks as they point up her lowly status in the medical profession. 

We may notice also that frequently in New Romanian Cinema, the characters who are helped aren’t too sympathetic: both Lazarescu and the friend having the abortion in 4 Months… are not especially grateful for the help they receive. Jeanine Teodorescu and Anca Munteanu sees in Lazarescu an “intractable and impetuous character” (Film Criticism), while in 4 Months…the friend receiving the abortion isn’t entirely honest about how far into the pregnancy she happens to be and seems to accept that Otilia will sleep with the abortionist (as she will too) as part payment for the deal. A good deed appreciated suggests a general societal well-being; a good deed barely acknowledged indicates a continuing malaise. The form captures this: a blank stare in the face of events that no matter the occasional act of decency is countered by a more general indifference. The camera reflects the indifference, even if we wouldn’t want to claim there is no variety to the style. As Mungui said of 4 Months… “With the camerawork we tried to show the state of mind of the main character, Otilia. Whenever she’s still, the camera is still. Whenever there is tension and she’s anxious and running around, the camera follows her.” (IndieWire) Puiu says, thje aim is “to encapsulate a statement connected to the idea of point-of-view in the style of the film. We are condemned in life to have just one position regarding an event that is unfolding in front of our eyes. Even if you change your position you have the same point-of-view because it is not the physical position but your position is in your brain.” (Mubi

One way of seeing this is to note that if critics so often invoke documentary-like to describe New Romanian Cinema, it rests partly on this limited perspective. If the films have “…a sense of immediateness, of raw material delivered in a documentary style,” (Film Criticism) as Teodorescu and Munteanu maintain, then this rests on generating positions that are from omniscient, from assuming a camera is an invariable point of view on an event. Instead of high angles and low angles, shots and counter shots, instead of a variety of film options, the films usually close them down to a small handful of possibilities. The film usually wouldn’t cut away to anything that creates a space between the viewer and the viewed: the camera would rarely have this implicit claim beyond the characters’ purview, a sort of implicitness mastered by Hitchcock as he often showed us a detail all the better to allow the audience to remain a step ahead of his characters. Few scenes are more famous for this than The Birds, with Hitchcock showing them gathering in the distance behind the central character as it cuts back and forth to the frame they gather on as Melanie smokes obliviously in the foreground, sitting on a bench. Often Hitchcock extends this into vast, contrasting spaces. In Strangers on a Train, Guy is playing a tennis match and many miles away is the man who is about to frame him who has lost Guy's lighter: the lighter that Bruno is going to plant has fallen down a drain. Guy knows nothing of this but the viewer does, as we see that this gives Guy more time. In contrast, the recent Romanian films generally won’t crosscut between two sequences even if they are in close proximity. When in The Death of Mr Lazarescu the title character vomits, Mihaela leaves the room and cleans the shoes while the film stays with Lazarescu and the husband: it doesn’t cut between her next door and events in the sitting room. This gives to the style a sense of restriction, a documentative feeling that the ‘action’ is limited by the camera and to leave that action would be to indicate a second camera and another set of perceptual possibilities. Such an approach works for Hitchcock and numerous other filmmakers since, who have been influenced by the authority the English director has shown. But contemporary Romanian cinema offers a stubborn resistance to this type of authority, and finds a different type of resistance in its eschewal. 

What such an approach reveals is that cinema is a question often not of money but of choice, even if we can hardly disagree with Gilles Deleuze’s claim that “what defines industrial art is that of money; what defines industrial art is not mechanical reproduction but the internalized relation with money. The only rejoinder to the harsh law of cinema — a minute of image which costs a day of collective work — is Fellini’s: “When there’s no more money left, the film will be finished.” (Cinema 2: The Time-Image) But what happens if your film doesn’t need a crane, tracking shots and a large crew; if the actors are often drawn from theatre rather than cinema and if your locations remain limited enough for there to be no need to put people up in hotels around the world? This would be the world of The Death of Mr Lazarecsu as a production, Many of the actors were not famous in film but well respected in theatre. Gheorghiu Luminița was chiefly a stage performer known for appearing in plays by Chekhov, Strindberg, Moliere and Goldoni. Adrian Titien appeared in over forty plays from the eighties, while for many years Florin Zamfirescu was an actor at the Odeon theatre in Bucharest. if the film is over when the money runs out, better to make sure the money lasts as long as it can. Puiu thus hadn’t only made a masterful film about Romania; he had also released a set of creative possibilities by limiting the budget, and showing other directors how great work could be produced with limited means. The film cost around €350,000; 4 Months… €600,00, Child’s Pose €850,000, Police, Adjective  €800,000. All were made cheaply and travelled internationally. They may not have made much money (even Lazarescu earned in the cinema less than it cost) but its impact was large and its delineation of a nation, along with the others films, unequivocal. 

Enough of money talk, or rather let us understand the health of impoverishment. The point is that Puiu’s film was an intervention, and it could intervene because it wanted to take comments like Deleuze’s and Fellini’s and wonder what happens when you make the money stretch: what sort of films could come out of this budgeting? Obviously, one doesn’t just make films on the cheap: the director finds instead aesthetic principles that don’t require large sums of money. You can work with an ensemble of little known but well-respected names rather than stars. You can restrict the perspective so that it is closer to the production demands of a documentary, you can use locations in the one city, you can eschew special effects and action sequences. All these become acts of resistance rather than of compromise as the filmmaker creates out of limitation a different type of expectation. “You put many things in a film that have to be respected morally”, Puiu says. “You are making a sort of deal with the audience or the reader of your book.” (Mubi) To bring in a crane shot in a film that has very deliberately utilised a camera that has remained more or less hand-held and shoulder high wouldn’t be chiefly a violation of the budget but of the form. Many films made on the cheap would love to have access to better and more expensive toys but once a director has made very clear aesthetic choices, a crane becomes intrusive to their intervention. The intervention has created its own set of expectations that large sums of money would counter, just as an international star too would look out of place in the films.

Thus, the camera in New Romanian Cinema is usually consistent with the perception of the human eye observing events at close proximity but not too close (it rarely adopts the sort of tactile immediacy to be found in Claire Denis, Andrea Arnold, or Alice Rohrwacher). Medium shots and medium close ups are the norm, and if the camera is in tighter in Puiu’s Sierenavada than in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, this is pragmatic within its parti pris: the cramped apartment the former film is set in is a more restricted space than the hospitals much of The Death of Mr Lazarescu is filmed in. Puiu says, “I cannot do any travelings [shots], only if I am walking on the street but not at a commemoration. I don’t zoom, I don’t change the focal length. With the camera, we are using the same eyes as the eyes we are born with. We cannot use a tele-objective. That is why I try to stick to what is a normal lens in cinema.” (Mubi

Out of the pragmatic need to let the location and the human eye dictate comes a type of cinema that cannot cheat on the reality it films, even if Puiu hardly believes he is making documentaries — though they are in a way documentaries of the actors in them. As he believes, in Sieranevada, “my guiding motive for shouting on the set was: Watch these people. They are dying. Not that the characters are going to die but these actors are going to die. I told the camera guys: What you are shooting here is a moment in the life of these humans, for God’s sake. Camera people are having this tendency of paying attention to the composition, making nice images and so on. No, it has to be visceral, it has to come from the guts, you have to feel it while watching it.” (Mubi) It is a documentary about the fiction he films, and thus the locations utilised and the actors used aren’t just props for telling a story but integrated people and places that cannot be transposed at will. A crane shot would have nothing to do with either site or soul and thus cannot be adopted.  

But what we also and finally have in the cinema Puiu’s film ushered in is an ensemble of actors that while clearly working elsewhere — in TV, in theatre, in other films — became part of the look and feel of New Romanian Cinema. IIon Fiscuteanu, who plays Lazarescu, alas may have been vital to the wave but his presence in it was short-lived because his own life was soon curtailed. He died in 2007. But Gheorghiu Luminița appeared in several films of the new cinema: Child’s Pose4 Months… Aurora, and Beyond the Hills. Adrian Titieni appeared in Child’s Pose and Graduation, Dana Doguro was in The Other Irene and Sierenevada, and Clara Voda is seen in If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle and Aurora. Though he doesn’t have a role in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Ivan Ivanov would become one of the best-known faces in New Romanian film: he is the abortionist in 4 Months…, and also has roles in Tales From the Golden AgePolice, AdjectiveGraduationChild’s Pose and The Other Irene. Also, many of the films were edited by Dana Bunescu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu4 Months…, Tales from the Golden AgeThe Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu) or shot by Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu4 Months…Tales from the Golden AgeBeyond the Hills) or Marius Panduru (The Happiest Girl in the World, If I want to Whistle I Whistle12:08: East of BucharestPolice, AdjectiveBad Luck Banging or Loony Porn). What is interesting is that if many of the films and none more so than The Death of Mr Lazarescu play up the inability of people to get along and cooperate, New Romanian Cinema has been doing a very good job at proving the antithesis of the worlds in front of the camera by the cooperation evident behind it in films that generated a wave. If the question many Romanian films ask is why it seems so difficult to act with consideration towards others, it has nevertheless produced a cinema that not only keeps asking this question but has found a way to answer it by productions made cheaply, collaboratively and yet singularly, producing auteurs like Puiu, Mungiu and Porumboiu. Puiu might say, “I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in this but the statement I want to make is that life is more important than cinema.” (Film Quarterly) But when life is inadequate, when there is so much triviality, inanity, stupidity and egotism (all often present in the films), then it often takes cinema both to show it and transcend that reality in the very making of the film. It is reality transfigured and life transcended, producing an object of contemplation out of the subjects filmed, people who live in the film and will remain immortally in their role while dying in life. Fiscuteanu of course died not so long after the film’s making; Gheorghiu Luminița passed away last year. Such a fact is as true of course in a Hollywood production as in Romanian one, but perhaps it is all the more so when the purpose of the films made is to capture an aspect of life in its unfolding and not chiefly a story in its telling. The more the story is present, the more the actor perhaps is immortalised in the fictional, then the more the documentative is present: the actor remaining themselves and their deaths oddly more of a loss. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Death of Mr Lazarescu

A Restrictive Disdain

Ushering in a new type of cinema, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu manages like other Romanian films of its moment (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 1208: East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective, Aurora and Child's Pose for example), to create out of a form a pervasive mood, whether the film is set during the end of the Ceausescu regime or during post-communist capitalism. What this mood is might best be described as pusillanimous self-regard, with characters often both timid and assertive, protecting their status or determining their self-interest. It might casually be the receptionist in the late-communist-set 4, Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, determined to make life difficult for the central character as she tries to book a hotel room, or more seriously the mother in Child's Pose whose grown-up son has run someone over and the mother is determined to use all her influence to avoid the man taking responsibility.

The mother in Child's Pose is played by Luminița Gheorghiu, a regular in the Romanian new wave films, and in this instance, in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a far more sympathetic figure, one capable of ruefully containing in her demeanour a constant sense of inevitable disappointment in her job as a paramedic whose advice, help and humanity are usually dismissed. The film's eponymous character is an engineer in his early sixties who has clearly been for some time drinking himself towards the death the film contains in its title. The film isn't shy in telling us that here is a self-destructive character who will be helped along by the general indifference of the Romanian health care system. He has been drinking a litre of hard liquor the day he is taken in and the neighbour, Mihaela (Dana Dogaru), tells Mioara, the paramedic, that she hasn't been too happy with Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu); he has turned her husband, Sandru (Doru Ana), into a heavy drinker as well. We are also informed that Lazarescu's wife died almost a decade earlier, and that his daughter lives in Toronto. He alleviates his loneliness with various cats around the flat but they seem to be contributing to his death as well. Sandru comments on all the cat hair and sure enough Lazarescu lives in a midden: papers piled up, no more than a piece of bread to eat and cat hair everywhere.

This is the environment the film lays out in its early scenes, helped along by a moment when Lazarescu will vomit over his slippers. Later in the film, he will pee himself and defecate in his trousers, but all this is presented in what might be described as a matter-of-fact way but doesn't quite capture the tone of a work that would influence so many other Romanian films that followed it. It is a camera style that takes from the Dogma movement an ad hoc approach to the image but instead of the hyperactive curiosity of the camera to be found in Festen and The Idiots, it seems closer to disdainful indifference. If so many people in New Romanian Cinema are treating each other with contempt, what better way of showing that contemptuousness than with a camera consistent with that disdain? Whether the camera stays still or moves, or bobs around a scene, it is a style that suggests interest without much curiosity, indicating a need to observe without a demand to dramatise. True, when Lazarescu vomits up blood threads the camera darts from Sandru to Lazarescu as the neighbour leans over, but there is of course no music nor a cut to Sandru's wife looking concerned. To do so would have given the film an anxious interest not quite matched by the neighbours themselves, who bail out of accompanying Lazarescu to hospital despite Mioara's requests. They would probably be pleased to see the back of him, all things considered the cat crap on the stairs, obviously the flat smells, and there is all that drinking which has turned the husband to booze as well.

It would be too harsh to call the neighbours bad samaritans, which might suggest crossing the road to avoid helping others. No, most of the time people are more inclined to stay on the same side of the road but look on, aware that a person in need is a person making demands on one's conscience that it is better acknowledged as a nuisance generated by the sick. When Lazarescu arrives at the first of several hospitals that will attend to him as cursorily as they can get away with, Dr Ardelean (Florin Zamfirescu) has a Beelzebub bedside manner. Asking Lazarescu about his drinking and smoking, he says "keep it up!" and adds, when Lazarescu talks about problems with his ulcer, "no you have head problems....You pour alcohol into your body and then come to me for repairs." He may have a point but best perhaps to address that elsewhere at a health conference, not when pressing hard into the patient's liver in a moment that is part diagnostic, part sadistic. The camera looks on, as though wary of a reaction shot to Moiara, who is seen within the frame along with the sadist, his junior colleague and the hapless Lazarescu lying on his back. Such a shot might arrive at the sentimental, and Puiu's work is nothing if not ferociously resistant to sentiment. Instead, it settles for the caustic, with numerous critics commenting on the comedic aspect. But the humour is never telegraphed, never a condition of the scene but a by-product of it. If the humour were palliative it could pass for a comedy, as though its purpose were to generate humour out of an event by making sure that the horror of the situation was contained by the comedic that encompasses it. But such an approach would be in danger of turning the film into a generic work, and one says this not at all to condemn the genre of comedy but to insist on seeing The Death of Mr Lazarescu as incidentally comic rather than generically so. When the DVD insists on putting in bold letters a quote from the Guardian calling the film "a comic masterpiece", this seems a misplaced application. An apple may be tart but that doesn't make it a citrus fruit. The Death of Mr Lazarescu is funny (and tart) but anyone watching it for its humour might be in for a far grimmer time than expected. Kind Hearts and Coronets, Harold and Maude and After Hours are all brilliantly funny but they are generically so if we accept that what makes a comedy comic as its priority is often a premise that emphasises the humour. In Kind Hearts...someone who is eighth in line to an inheritance intends to kill off all those in front of him; in Harold and Maude, Harold finds ingenious ways to fake his suicide for a laugh and, in After Hours, a yuppie looking for a fun night out gets caught in various nightmarishly absurd scenarios. To say that a lonely alcoholic gets bumped from one hospital to the next and more or lies dies because of the medical profession's indifference isn't much of a comic premise and this is why we invoke the incidental rather than the central: that it may have horribly insensitive moments that might well make us laugh but the comic isn't its purpose.

In a scene with the second doctor, Dr Dragos (Adrian Titien) asks Lazarescu what is on the doctor's wrist, namely a watch, and the patient says "if you know, why are you asking me". It is funny as the doctor is going through a necessary procedure to find out if the patient is compos mentis and the irony is that he is and he isn't: Lazarescu has retained his sense of humour (just as he retained his dignity after the first doctor insulted him and Lazarescu says "I don't need your help), but he isn't in a fit state to make the sort of decision the doctor wants him to make: trying to establish if the patient is of sound mind for legal rather than medical reasons. We find out that the doctor is willing to risk a serious operation where the patient might die, but only if Lazarescu signs a form saying that he is okay with it. Moiara reckons that he isn't in a condition to sign anything. The comic moment is contained within a greater ethical one and the film leaves us wondering if the Romanian medical system is in no fit state of its own.

Yet the film is careful to avoid caricature and curb the satirical: the doctors all seem competent at their jobs but unwilling to commit to a diagnosis that might cost them money or reputation - and keen to tell others like Moiara to mind their own diagnostic business if they deem them too lowly to have an opinion at all. The film covers one evening, and just as the title character is taken to hospital, at the same time there has been a terrible bus crash that crowds out other cases. Why wouldn't doctors despair at this man who has been drinking himself to death over years when they have to attend to a major accident? The poor passengers would have had no choice; there Lazarescu is taking up valuable medical time when all he had to do was cease drinking. This isn't the film's perspective, of course, but its present within the material as a way of comprehending the caustic comments by professionals the film wants to show as often brutal and disregarding but also harried and overworked. It helps give nuance to what can seem a satire on Romanian health care, as if health is rare and care frequently absent. When asked if the carelessness shown to Mr. Lazarescu should be viewed as a collective failure or a failure of the individuals, a problem of national character, or an institutional problem showing the failure of modern health care, Puiu reckoned "...this carelessness is the name of the interest we have for ourselves given by others, the dark side of egoism..." (Film Comment) While films like Hospital and Britannia Hospital are more obviously satirical accounts of the profession, Puiu's might be better described as an interrogation, or what Puiui calls a "testimony" (Film Comment), as though utilising the hospital environment for the purposes of an absurdist investigation into human frailty, one that looks like it is about bodily debilitation but investigates even more shrewdly the egoistically troublesome as if no matter how much money was thrown at health care, we could expect an egoistic carelessness to accompany it.

We needn't assume this is Puiu saying that whether healthcare is private, public or a mixture makes no difference. That would be another question and one might unfairly assume the answer because it is hardly couched as a question. Hospital writer Paddy Chayefsky was frustrated with the private American health care system: and was "inspired to write this attack on institutionalized medicine after his wife's unhappy experience in a hospital while suffering from a neurological disorder. The incompetence and hospital staff apathy she encountered so enraged Chayefsky that he funneled his frustrations into this screenplay." (Cinema Sojourns) In Britannia Hospital, Anderson "lampoons the excesses of the National Health, but also uses its titular institution as a microcosmic cross section of society in the early years of Thatcherism." (Slant) Covering one day, Anderson combines a royal hospital visit with large-scale strikes all the better to sum up the state of an antiquated health system and an antiquated nation. Hospital is a lot drier and observant than Anderson's film but they both can easily pass for satires of the medical profession, while Puiu is interested in saying something about the human generally that might assume health care an exceptional environment where petty egoism would be transcended. But no, Puiu says, here too you can expect people to act with that pusillanimous self-regard we can expect to find everywhere else. "It is more about a lack of responsibility than about slowness. We Romanians are as intelligent and stupid and kind and evil and talented as any other people on this planet. The problem we have is related to courage. We don't have the guts to assume our responsibilities, to accept our failures and our mistakes and our crimes, to accept who we are." (Film Comment) But rather than seeing this as a Romanian characteristic, better to see it as a characteristic of Romanian cinema. In other words, what Puiu and others reveal, through contemporary Romanian film, is a characteristic prevalent everywhere but passing through a particular nation. "They are not Romanian stories", Puiu said, "but stories from Romania" (Sarajevo Film Festival)

To understand this question a little better we can say just a few words about Romanian history, and far more on the style the film adopts and how an aspect of the two come together to produce a work that is funny without being satirical, caustic without being cruel, and assertive while retaining an odd hesitancy. There have been numerous documentaries on Nicolai Ceausescu, and perhaps part of the fascination rests less in his leadership than in his demise. His death was a horrible example of reality TV, with Ceausescu's and his wife's executed bodies shown to the public as proof that this was finally over. As a radio presenter announced: The anti-Christ died. Oh, what wonderful news!" (Guardian) Other former Communist countries had oppressive, all-powerful and/or charismatic leaders but many of them had long since died when Communism fell. Stalin passed away many years before Communism did, Yugoslavia's Tito in 1980 and Albania's Hoxha died in 1985. All were feared and perhaps only Tito loved, while other countries' dictatorial aspect was evident more in the system than in the individual, with the Stasi in Eastern Europe for example an abstract fear as the leaders would change. In Romania, the hatred felt towards Ceausescu potentially also created a self-hatred: that here was a buffoon who was creating fear and food shortages, who decided to pay off IMF loans rather than concentrating on his own people's needs. The country was being run by a man who left school at eleven and had his speeches ghost-written by others. Silviu Brucan "was asked to ghost-write articles for the semi-literate Ceausescu" (Independent).

A country run by Stalin needn't generate individual self-loathing but chiefly self-preservation, but one run by Ceausescu allows the two to rub up against each other. In Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest, the film hinges on those who were or were not revolutionary heroes. If they were in the town square before 12:08, they were heroic protestors risking their lives under dictatorship; if after 12:08 they knew Ceausescu had fled and his regime was over. They might not have been opportunists but neither were they heroes. 12:08 East of Bucharest is more obviously comedic than The Death of Mr Lazarescu but they both share an interest in behaviour that shows troublesome self-interest. In Porumboiu's film, the guests on the TV show that is celebrating the event years later are claiming a heroic status that proves untenable. In The Death of Mr Lazarescu, we have the medical professions as avenging angels as much as angels of mercy. The doctor who prods away at Lazarescu's kidney seems to be punishing as readily as diagnosing. It is as though the self-loathing of living under a crumbling regime run by a half-fool meets with the cruelty meted out to the president once he has been toppled, and continues post-dicatorship. Romania wasn't the only country during the anti-Communist revolutions where violence was evident: Lithuania for example where more than a dozen protestors were killed. But in Romania "a military crackdown against protesters saw 66 people killed and more than 300 wounded, according to some estimates. But the violence wasn't enough to stop the protests, and thousands of people began to take to the streets. "(Politico) The way Puiu describes how and when they killed Ceausescu captures well this cynical cruelty practised by numerous characters in The Death of Mr Lazarescu: "We assassinated Ceausescu on December 25. We could have assassinated him on the 24[th] or the 26[th]. But we are too attached to fictions, so we had to assassinate him on Christmas." (East European Film Bulletin) Alexandru Leo Serban puts it even more harshly: Romanians are hard to please: they were born angry, they live grumbling, and they won't die until they also exasperate others. (Film Criticism)

It is always suspect drawing consequences from causes when discussing film in the context of politics, perhaps a too easy way to say something about a nation at a given moment of time: that many films were capturing the paranoia of Watergate in the US, the jingoism of the UK at the time of the Falklands, and so on. But all we wish to propose is that there is a very special tension in recent Romanian cinema, as though showing the worst after many years under communism where the 'best' was forcefully put on show, evident in The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu, which relies exclusively on footage from the archive showing the dictator in various usually favourable lights, all the while implicitly allowing us to see how much of this was a lie. After all, if he was so wonderful, why did the people kill him?

But a caustic, ironic and cruel cinema wouldn't have been quite enough to generate a wave, and nobody more than Puiu was vital to this shift formally. Monica Filomon notes "Romanian critics...have underlined the major leap by Romanian cinema after Puiu's 2005 Cannes prize [for The Death of Mr Lazarescu], separating it into two major "eras" -BC and AC- (before and after Cristi)." Watching a Romanian film like Nae Caranfil's Philanthropy not knowing when it was made (2002), we would assume it was a BC film and naive or contrary were it made after 2005. It isn't that Mungui, Porumboiu, Radu Muntean, Calin Peter Netser and Radu Jude have copied Puiu; it is more that there are certain shifts that cannot be ignored and to pretend they haven't taken place is usually a form of naivety rather than a sign of integrity. To make a French film after the Nouvelle vague without acknowledging at all the shift would have been to have made the filmmaker seem ignorant, unless one was the sort of director (like Bresson or Tati), who so influenced the wave that their work showed prescience and had little need to absorb influences that had absorbed it.

Formally, vital to this new Romanian cinema was the long-take, the general absence of non-diegetic music, the mundane situation and a camera that was rarely still yet neither quite active. The long take as a method of course goes as far back as Andre Bazin, theoretically, and what he sought, and sometimes found, in neo-realist cinema and even in American film of the forties. Neo-realist film rarely eschewed a music track but the Dardennes and Kiarostami did, and in very different ways added new possibilities to realism: a verisimilitude that included greater audio density. Bazin saw the mundane in various neo-realism scenes but none more so than when the maid makes coffee in Umberto D. Instead of "two or three shots", Bazin says that director Vittorio "De Sica replaces this narrative unit with a series of 'smaller' events: she wakes up; she crosses the hall; he drowns the ants; and so on." (What is Cinema? Vol II) Yet it was the Nouvelle vague that would make the mundane provocative, with Belmondo and Seberg in Breathless lying in bed chatting, or walking along the street. But perhaps it would be useful to distinguish the mundane from the un-elliptical. In the mundane we have empty events, moments that could have been excised, but with the un-elliptical we have the necessary expanded. It is mundane to have characters talking about the weather or their favourite soft drink before a heist; it is un-elliptical to show the journey from the apartment to the bank, to show them stopping at traffic lights, caught in a traffic jam. This may of course serve a narrative function (to show how busy the streets are and how difficult it might be for the getaway driver after the heist) but that would be the achievement of a narrative filmmaker who has learnt from the possibilities neo-realism and the Nouvelle vague instigated. Equally, we can think of the camera in Dogma films, most especially Festen, which is hyperactively adventurous, banging into objects, hanging out of car windows, looking down from ceilings. This wasn't fly on the wall but the busiest of bees buzzing around the environment. If all these formal aspects of the New Romanian Cinema can be found in various incarnations before it, what makes it so new?

First of all, the mundane contains within it often a sense of urgency: for all the apparent indifference to event in the style, important things are taking place: an abortion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a man in dire need of medical help in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a mother trying to keep her son out of jail after a hit and run in Child's Pose, while in Aurora a divorcee goes on a killing spree, and in Police, Adjective, a surveillance operation (however insignificant) takes place. But mundanity there is, whether it is the abortionist stopping off and having a few words with his mother in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the flirtatious behaviour between a doctor and his partner, here, or Sandru discussing with the upstairs neighbour buying wine on the cheap. It can give to events a frustrating sense of indifference in the face of the urgent, and we might wonder how much of this moral failing rests in the characters or in the film simply including moments that other films would leave out. Is it especially insensitive to flirt a little at work, or obnoxious to discuss a minor trade deal while your ill neighbour leaves the room? Equally, the films often offer the un-elliptical, whether it is the journey the central character makes after her friend's abortion in 4, Months... and the lengthy single take when she joins her boyfriend's family, or the minutes given over to getting to the hospital in the old ambulance here. It is often the urgency of situation meeting the lack of urgency in the style that can give to New Romanian Cinema a fruitful disjunction. It is a disjunction that the camera nevertheless proposes in its twitchiness. In The Death of Mr Lazarescu, the camera is rarely still: whether watching on as the bullying doctor pushes into Lazarescu's liver, or in the opening establishing shot on the block of flats in which Lazarescu lives, the camera has a shakiness that isn't agitative (as we find in Dogma), immediate (as in the Dardennes' Rosetta) or tense (evident in Greengrass's Bloody Sunday or United 93, but aloof. If Luc Dardenne created the term 'corps-camera (body camera)' (Art Forum) to describe how the brothers worked on creating a camera that would stick close to a character's body, the ostensibly similar style here insists on a space between the camera and the body. It has the observational sense of documentary meeting the dramatic demands of crisis but refuses to use the tools of drama (close ups, music and reaction shots) to capture the sense of urgency.

It is this that makes New Romanian Cinema singular, creating an ethical rather than an empathic (Rosetta) or dissident (The Idiots) relationship with film. So often the films ask, what would you do in a similar situation? Would you be the good samaritan who goes to the hospital with your neighbour, would you help your friend abort a child even if it was illegal, would you do all you could to protect your son if he accidentally ran someone over, or in, Graduation, would you help your daughter pass her exams corruptly after an attack leaves her unable to focus her attention? Even if we are usually with a given character in the film (Otilia in 4 Months..., the father in The Graduation), this doesn't create immediate identification but a constantly hovering ethos that leaves us unsure of the right thing to do. This needn't rule out exceptional ethical behaviour (Otilia in 4 Months; Mioara here) but it doesn't allow for ready identification with it either. The pusillanimous context is always greater than the deed, however honourable, which, while making the deed all the greater, is one that can never quite be wrestled from the broader milieu. For all Mioara's decency, she is still often a barometer for the indecency of others, for their condescending remarks as they point up her lowly status in the medical profession.

We may notice also that frequently in New Romanian Cinema, the characters who are helped aren't too sympathetic: both Lazarescu and the friend having the abortion in 4 Months... are not especially grateful for the help they receive. Jeanine Teodorescu and Anca Munteanu sees in Lazarescu an "intractable and impetuous character" (Film Criticism), while in 4 Months...the friend receiving the abortion isn't entirely honest about how far into the pregnancy she happens to be and seems to accept that Otilia will sleep with the abortionist (as she will too) as part payment for the deal. A good deed appreciated suggests a general societal well-being; a good deed barely acknowledged indicates a continuing malaise. The form captures this: a blank stare in the face of events that no matter the occasional act of decency is countered by a more general indifference. The camera reflects the indifference, even if we wouldn't want to claim there is no variety to the style. As Mungui said of 4 Months... "With the camerawork we tried to show the state of mind of the main character, Otilia. Whenever she's still, the camera is still. Whenever there is tension and she's anxious and running around, the camera follows her." (IndieWire) Puiu says, thje aim is "to encapsulate a statement connected to the idea of point-of-view in the style of the film. We are condemned in life to have just one position regarding an event that is unfolding in front of our eyes. Even if you change your position you have the same point-of-view because it is not the physical position but your position is in your brain." (Mubi)

One way of seeing this is to note that if critics so often invoke documentary-like to describe New Romanian Cinema, it rests partly on this limited perspective. If the films have "...a sense of immediateness, of raw material delivered in a documentary style," (Film Criticism) as Teodorescu and Munteanu maintain, then this rests on generating positions that are from omniscient, from assuming a camera is an invariable point of view on an event. Instead of high angles and low angles, shots and counter shots, instead of a variety of film options, the films usually close them down to a small handful of possibilities. The film usually wouldn't cut away to anything that creates a space between the viewer and the viewed: the camera would rarely have this implicit claim beyond the characters' purview, a sort of implicitness mastered by Hitchcock as he often showed us a detail all the better to allow the audience to remain a step ahead of his characters. Few scenes are more famous for this than The Birds, with Hitchcock showing them gathering in the distance behind the central character as it cuts back and forth to the frame they gather on as Melanie smokes obliviously in the foreground, sitting on a bench. Often Hitchcock extends this into vast, contrasting spaces. In Strangers on a Train, Guy is playing a tennis match and many miles away is the man who is about to frame him who has lost Guy's lighter: the lighter that Bruno is going to plant has fallen down a drain. Guy knows nothing of this but the viewer does, as we see that this gives Guy more time. In contrast, the recent Romanian films generally won't crosscut between two sequences even if they are in close proximity. When in The Death of Mr Lazarescu the title character vomits, Mihaela leaves the room and cleans the shoes while the film stays with Lazarescu and the husband: it doesn't cut between her next door and events in the sitting room. This gives to the style a sense of restriction, a documentative feeling that the 'action' is limited by the camera and to leave that action would be to indicate a second camera and another set of perceptual possibilities. Such an approach works for Hitchcock and numerous other filmmakers since, who have been influenced by the authority the English director has shown. But contemporary Romanian cinema offers a stubborn resistance to this type of authority, and finds a different type of resistance in its eschewal.

What such an approach reveals is that cinema is a question often not of money but of choice, even if we can hardly disagree with Gilles Deleuze's claim that "what defines industrial art is that of money; what defines industrial art is not mechanical reproduction but the internalized relation with money. The only rejoinder to the harsh law of cinema a minute of image which costs a day of collective work is Fellini's: "When there's no more money left, the film will be finished." (Cinema 2: The Time-Image) But what happens if your film doesn't need a crane, tracking shots and a large crew; if the actors are often drawn from theatre rather than cinema and if your locations remain limited enough for there to be no need to put people up in hotels around the world? This would be the world of The Death of Mr Lazarecsu as a production, Many of the actors were not famous in film but well respected in theatre. Gheorghiu Luminița was chiefly a stage performer known for appearing in plays by Chekhov, Strindberg, Moliere and Goldoni. Adrian Titien appeared in over forty plays from the eighties, while for many years Florin Zamfirescu was an actor at the Odeon theatre in Bucharest. if the film is over when the money runs out, better to make sure the money lasts as long as it can. Puiu thus hadn't only made a masterful film about Romania; he had also released a set of creative possibilities by limiting the budget, and showing other directors how great work could be produced with limited means. The film cost around 350,000; 4 Months... 600,00, Child's Pose 850,000, Police, Adjective 800,000. All were made cheaply and travelled internationally. They may not have made much money (even Lazarescu earned in the cinema less than it cost) but its impact was large and its delineation of a nation, along with the others films, unequivocal.

Enough of money talk, or rather let us understand the health of impoverishment. The point is that Puiu's film was an intervention, and it could intervene because it wanted to take comments like Deleuze's and Fellini's and wonder what happens when you make the money stretch: what sort of films could come out of this budgeting? Obviously, one doesn't just make films on the cheap: the director finds instead aesthetic principles that don't require large sums of money. You can work with an ensemble of little known but well-respected names rather than stars. You can restrict the perspective so that it is closer to the production demands of a documentary, you can use locations in the one city, you can eschew special effects and action sequences. All these become acts of resistance rather than of compromise as the filmmaker creates out of limitation a different type of expectation. "You put many things in a film that have to be respected morally", Puiu says. "You are making a sort of deal with the audience or the reader of your book." (Mubi) To bring in a crane shot in a film that has very deliberately utilised a camera that has remained more or less hand-held and shoulder high wouldn't be chiefly a violation of the budget but of the form. Many films made on the cheap would love to have access to better and more expensive toys but once a director has made very clear aesthetic choices, a crane becomes intrusive to their intervention. The intervention has created its own set of expectations that large sums of money would counter, just as an international star too would look out of place in the films.

Thus, the camera in New Romanian Cinema is usually consistent with the perception of the human eye observing events at close proximity but not too close (it rarely adopts the sort of tactile immediacy to be found in Claire Denis, Andrea Arnold, or Alice Rohrwacher). Medium shots and medium close ups are the norm, and if the camera is in tighter in Puiu's Sierenavada than in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, this is pragmatic within its parti pris: the cramped apartment the former film is set in is a more restricted space than the hospitals much of The Death of Mr Lazarescu is filmed in. Puiu says, "I cannot do any travelings [shots], only if I am walking on the street but not at a commemoration. I don't zoom, I don't change the focal length. With the camera, we are using the same eyes as the eyes we are born with. We cannot use a tele-objective. That is why I try to stick to what is a normal lens in cinema." (Mubi)

Out of the pragmatic need to let the location and the human eye dictate comes a type of cinema that cannot cheat on the reality it films, even if Puiu hardly believes he is making documentaries though they are in a way documentaries of the actors in them. As he believes, in Sieranevada, "my guiding motive for shouting on the set was: Watch these people. They are dying. Not that the characters are going to die but these actors are going to die. I told the camera guys: What you are shooting here is a moment in the life of these humans, for God's sake. Camera people are having this tendency of paying attention to the composition, making nice images and so on. No, it has to be visceral, it has to come from the guts, you have to feel it while watching it." (Mubi) It is a documentary about the fiction he films, and thus the locations utilised and the actors used aren't just props for telling a story but integrated people and places that cannot be transposed at will. A crane shot would have nothing to do with either site or soul and thus cannot be adopted.

But what we also and finally have in the cinema Puiu's film ushered in is an ensemble of actors that while clearly working elsewhere in TV, in theatre, in other films became part of the look and feel of New Romanian Cinema. IIon Fiscuteanu, who plays Lazarescu, alas may have been vital to the wave but his presence in it was short-lived because his own life was soon curtailed. He died in 2007. But Gheorghiu Luminița appeared in several films of the new cinema: Child's Pose, 4 Months... Aurora, and Beyond the Hills. Adrian Titieni appeared in Child's Pose and Graduation, Dana Doguro was in The Other Irene and Sierenevada, and Clara Voda is seen in If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle and Aurora. Though he doesn't have a role in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Ivan Ivanov would become one of the best-known faces in New Romanian film: he is the abortionist in 4 Months..., and also has roles in Tales From the Golden Age, Police, Adjective, Graduation, Child's Pose and The Other Irene. Also, many of the films were edited by Dana Bunescu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu, 4 Months..., Tales from the Golden Age, The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu) or shot by Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu, 4 Months..., Tales from the Golden Age, Beyond the Hills) or Marius Panduru (The Happiest Girl in the World, If I want to Whistle I Whistle, 12:08: East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn). What is interesting is that if many of the films and none more so than The Death of Mr Lazarescu play up the inability of people to get along and cooperate, New Romanian Cinema has been doing a very good job at proving the antithesis of the worlds in front of the camera by the cooperation evident behind it in films that generated a wave. If the question many Romanian films ask is why it seems so difficult to act with consideration towards others, it has nevertheless produced a cinema that not only keeps asking this question but has found a way to answer it by productions made cheaply, collaboratively and yet singularly, producing auteurs like Puiu, Mungiu and Porumboiu. Puiu might say, "I don't know if I've succeeded in this but the statement I want to make is that life is more important than cinema." (Film Quarterly) But when life is inadequate, when there is so much triviality, inanity, stupidity and egotism (all often present in the films), then it often takes cinema both to show it and transcend that reality in the very making of the film. It is reality transfigured and life transcended, producing an object of contemplation out of the subjects filmed, people who live in the film and will remain immortally in their role while dying in life. Fiscuteanu of course died not so long after the film's making; Gheorghiu Luminița passed away last year. Such a fact is as true of course in a Hollywood production as in Romanian one, but perhaps it is all the more so when the purpose of the films made is to capture an aspect of life in its unfolding and not chiefly a story in its telling. The more the story is present, the more the actor perhaps is immortalised in the fictional, then the more the documentative is present: the actor remaining themselves and their deaths oddly more of a loss.


© Tony McKibbin