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Interview: Cristi Puiu

A Painful Case

Initially conceived under the spell of hypochondria and James Cagney, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a cinematic experience of singular intensity and vision. A rueful record of its eponymous hero’s final six hours on earth, it depicts the deterioration of Lazarescu Dante Remus as he is shuttled among Bucharest emergency rooms whose indifference to his condition would be darkly comedic if it didn’t have such mortal implications.

When I first saw it last year in the New York Film Festival, Death of Mr. Lazarescu upstaged the solid work of such better known European auteurs as the Dardennes Brothers and Michael Haneke. With its opening at New York’s Film Forum later this month, it will become the first Romanian film to receive a stateside theatrical run since Lucien Pintille’s The Oak in 1994. The director and co-writer of this breakthrough is 38-year-old Bucharest native Cristi Puiu. Death of Mr. Lazarescu, his second feature film, is envisaged as the first in a series of films entitled “Six Stories from the Bucharest Suburbs.”

The film opens in the apartment of Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), an aging widower, whose only companions are his cats, a blaring television set, and a potent bottle of spirits. With its lengthy tracking shots, handheld aesthetic, and dreary milieu, Death of Mr. Lazarescu may appear at first glance to be a familiar kind of art film, predictably vérité in its style and social-realist in its content. But whereas such films usually extract a measure of dramatic life from the sameness of existence,Death of Mr. Lazarescu is structured around the illness and impending death of its title character. Shooting such a charged scenario in a close approximation of real time allows Puiu to convert banal material into surreal encounters, as when a doctor wanders into the admitting room and asks for a cell phone battery in order to make a call, all the while ignoring his patient whose life is inexorably ebbing away.

One might appreciate the irony of such situations if everything that happens to Mr. Lazarescu and his custodian (Luminita Gheorghiu) weren’t so damnably petty. Still, the film’s remarkably dark portrait of human behavior and psychology is uncorrupted by misanthropy: Puiu knows to be human is to err. His universe may be whispering on this particular night, but it’s not running a tally on all these sins of omission. To be sure, the story of Lazarescu Dante Remus, pitched somewhere between swallowed laughter and psychic terror, is no divine comedy. Yet curiously, the film’s ending has the effect of a blessing, as though the universe had just been opened up a little more. As with other aspects of the movie, this enigma does not readily yield to scrutiny. But if I had to hazard a guess as to how Puiu achieves this rarified feeling, it would be that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—at once a meditation on mortality, a portrait of loneliness, and an indictment of moral malaise—is chiefly a film made with faith, hope, and love.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Why do you think this Romanian tale has resonated so much in the international festival circuit?

I don’t think I can give you the right answer, just a supposition which is related to a Truffaut quote: “A film has to tell us something about life and something about cinema.” So this is what I think: the film contains a vision of life—the story about a human being who dies alone, surrounded by the indifference of the others—and a vision of cinema. For me, cinema is less an art form than a technique for investigating reality. And this is not a Romanian tale, but a tale from Romania.

When you say “investigating reality,” what do you mean?

Reality is like a monster with many heads. We are talking about an object that is not defined. I am trying to define reality and what it consists of. So it becomes for me very passionate, very enjoyable, and challenging.

You have characterized your movie as having a “typically Romanian slowness.” Do you mean slowness in the way you tell the story?

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. I don’t even know if we know the meaning of the word. The concrete expression of this is a long series of hesitations that lead to slowness.

How has this story played in your native country? Has it been well received?

The film was pretty well received and the reactions were rather positive. Nevertheless, some people got really pissed off by the story—the way I portray the characters and the situations—saying that this film affects the image of Romania abroad.


The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Were there any cinematic or literary models that you were thinking of when you were making the film?

My main influences come from Romanian literature and poetry, artists that have influenced me in general. One is Eugene Ionesco and his Theatre of the Absurd. The others are two poets whom I’d call “the poets of the silent despair,” George Bacovia and Virgil Mazilescu. From universal literature and art I found some other models such as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. My conception of cinema is the result of the “lessons” I got from the authors above and the discovery of the works of Cassavetes, Wiseman, Rohmer, and Depardon.

While your film has the naturalism of those of Cassavetes, you film seems wider in scope than his would be. I would compare Cassavetes to a painter’s portrait, but Death of Mr. Lazarescu is more akin to a panorama or tableau.

Could be. I see what you mean. I think that is a secondary effect of the fact that 10 years ago I suddenly decided to make films after I discovered Cassavetes and Direct Cinema, and these kinds of documentaries, Wiseman and Depardon and so on. I would say my film is an expression of the way I understand their work. And the way I understand how to make films as well, because I am following in their footsteps. Step by step, I am interested in going further to discover things they couldn’t discover in their own work. But it may appear to be a panorama because there are so many characters.

A greater ensemble.

Right. And the central story, you might not see that kind of structure in Cassavetes’ work. So much tension, the danger so close—well, maybe in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—otherwise they’re somehow interior dramas. But here you take part in the drama of this character Mr. Lazarescu. But I prefer to think—and I hope this is true—that I have achieved something to John Cassavetes. To say to Mr. Cassavetes, Mr. Wiseman, and Mr. Depardon, I did my homework.

What first made you want to make a film about the failure of humans to act with kindness to a sick man?

The fear I have of death and of the failure to communicate. The revelation of the loneliness of a certain kind of life. The discovery of the fact that we are acting according to a certain model which is defined by personal priorities. The books of Henri Laborit and Paul Watzlawick.

Do you think of the carelessness shown to Mr. Lazarescu as a collective failure or as a failure of individuals? As a problem of national character? Or is it institutional— the failure of modern health care to provide anything more than a medical cure?

No. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as collective failure or individual failure regarding the carelessness shown in Death of Mr. Lazarescu. And, for sure, it has nothing to do with “national character,” whatever that means. The carelessness you are talking about is a state of fact, a dimension of the individual. This carelessness is the name of the interest we have for ourselves given by others, the dark side of egoism, which is what keeps us alive. Sad but true.

You have said the movie is about the failure to love, but it is also about what Mr. Lazarescu calls “the problem of mortality.” You ask your audience to watch a man die before their eyes. Were you ever worried that this was too much to ask of them?

I worried, yes, but not for long. I conceive of cinema and music and literature and art in terms of testimony. I am interested in an author as long as his work represents a confession. I am making films about myself, and Death of Mr. Lazarescu is an example (a secondary effect) of me thinking about my own death. For years and years I asked myself about the function an artist can have in a community, and I tried to define his status. It is not an easy job, especially when the community is so skeptical about you and your “products.”

Some time ago, rereading the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen to my older daughter, I realized that I had been in touch with one possible definition of the artist for a long time (and since then I am more and more persuaded that it is so), and that is the child who’s shouting, “The Emperor is naked!” So I’m trying to raise myself to the level of this child and tell you, the audience, just what I think and feel—just what I can see from my window (like André Gide’s TITIR).

Earlier you mentioned Ionesco. There is an interesting quote by him as regards the artist: “The basic problem is, if God exists, then what is the point of literature? And if he doesn’t exist, what is the point of literature?” Would you agree with his sentiment?

Yeah, well, this is my problem, you see. People call me a film director now. And before I started doing this I was a painter. And I think it is stupid in both cases. It’s hard for me to believe in this. I enjoy this activity, but it is very hard for me to start because I am questioning the roots, the basis of this activity. What is the point of making films or telling stories? There too many stories already, and all these stories are the same. Well, maybe the point is to tell the same story differently.

There is a character in Kafka’s The Trial, a painter called Titorelli, who paints dozens of paintings of a tree in the middle of a field. So I agree with him: what is the point of making films? But you have to do something, and making films is a part of life as much as teaching people or being a policeman or a doctor. But if you are questioning the foundations of any human activity as Ionesco did, relating this to God as he did, then everything disappears. Everything loses its sense, so I agree with Ionesco. At the same time, he did write.

In the original plan for the screenplay, the sick man is a John Doe, unconscious for the duration of the story. When and why did you choose to give the character a name and a distinctive personality?

We decided (Razvan Radulescu and I) to change the point of view and to focus on the patient when we found out that it would have been impossible to build up this story—the journey from one hospital to another with an unconscious patient. We did some research in various hospitals, and every doctor we met told us that they cannot turn away a patient who’s comatose. And this was, after all, a good thing because it allowed us to develop a second story inside the original story of refusal and indifference, the story of the lonely and senseless life of a flesh-and-blood individual. If we had stuck with John Doe, the entire story would have been a sterile demonstration and a big lie.

Could you talk about Mr. Lazarescu’s deterioration and his disjointed speech? One of the most interesting aspects of the movie to me is the decay of his mind. It is sad but occasionally very funny. I couldn’t help feeling though that the meaning of some of his statements had been lost in the English translation. Does a statement like “my belly swelled out my back” have any greater meaning in Romanian?

During two years of active hypochondria from 2001 to 2003, I thought I had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). This awful disease affects speech, and this was the reason I chose a neuralgic illness for Lazarescu. The prospect of having ALS, of being unable to express myself, was and remains one of my biggest fears. Hopefully it was just hypochondria.

We did lose some of the meaning in translation, but in the end I feel we preserved the essence. “My belly swelled out my back” has no larger meaning in Romanian, but it is important to relate this line to the actor, who has a very distinct physique. I adapted certain lines according to the profiles of the actors I cast. In the first draft of the script, for example, Lazarescu’s sister had to come from Craiova, which is a town in southern Romania. But after casting Ion Fiscuteanu, I changed Lazarescu’s biography. I moved his sister from Craiova to Tirgu Mures because Fiscuteanu lives in Tirgu Mures (a Transylvanian town, half-Hungarian, half-Romanian). I invented a Hungarian ex-wife, and I took advantage of Fiscuteanu’s accent. In the same spirit, I invented lines and disjointed them according to Fiscuteanu’s profile (cultural, physical, political, etc.).

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

The ending of the film is very powerful. There seems to be a sense of peace, but can we make peace with all the human folly that has preceded it? Does your movie, as Chekhov proposes is the function of art, “prepare us for tenderness”?

I don’t know how to respond to this. Chekhov’s proposal—no offense—sounds to me more appropriate to the preparation of Wiener schnitzel. But this doesn’t mean he’s not right. I love Chekhov, and, be sure, I love Wiener schnitzel very much.

The film’s final cut is rather abrubt. Did you always have in mind this sort of ending?

This cut may appear perverse to a certain kind of audience—though not to everyone I have encountered. I have met some people have told me this is the best cut of the film.

I think it’s certainly part of the power of the ending, but what is its function? Is this an arbitrary endpoint or must Lazarescu’s story end here?

Well, a film can end anywhere. But I did not want to show him dying. Because I think it could have been pornographic, indecent, and immoral. And stupid anyway. Showing what? The cinematic convention of a character dying? How we die in cinema? We didn’t have so many options. When you are shot by a cowboy, when you are bitten by Dracula, there are conventions. There are not so many options when you are telling the story of someone like Mr. Lazarescu with a really serious health problem. How can you show him dying? Show his breathing stop? Then people would say, “Okay. So he dies finally.”

Which is not the point.

Right, because the point is the slow death. I don’t mean to sound too philosophical; death for me is not abstract. I am very scared of death, this event that is going to happen I hope not for another hundred years. The more you think about it, the more scared you become. Discovering that from the moment you are born, you start dying little by little—it was terrible for me to arrive at this conclusion.

And what is the death of Mr. Lazarescu? It’s the last day of a person who understands how to live his life in a certain way. And his last day looks like his entire life. He loses many things during this last day, and during his life he has lost things, important persons—his wife, his daughter, and so on—so now he’s losing his dignity, his speech, his hair at the end. And he’s caught up in little conflicts with many people, with doctors, his neighbors, with his paramedic. He has his opinions and so on. And it’s so cheap, in fact, everything that happens to him. I think death is the same for anyone, for figures of much greater importance than Lazarescu, Einstein, or Michelangelo, for instance. Yet there is something particularly sad about everything that happens to him.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

There are different qualities of sadness, though. I felt angry or frustrated for portions of the movie, but at the end I felt beyond being angry with the characters. The camera is so stable and slow—is this a kind of resignation?

The camera is silent; it has followed him through his last day. When Lazarescu has stopped moving, I told Andrei [Butica] who shot the film that this was an indication of paying respect to someone who is leaving this world. You don’t have to move the camera, I said, you only have to pay attention to what has happened and to pay respect.

When the paramedic says she can’t stay with him any longer, I felt it exposed the limit to human kindness. She has followed his journey, paid attention, but there is a limit to how far she can go.

In terms of scriptwriting, it was very delicate, her exit and also her introduction. We could not have her come and check him very quickly and go to the hospital. We had to keep her in the apartment to make her become part of his life, his intimacy. So that was one problem, how to introduce the paramedic. But then we had the other problem, how to make her leave. All along the nurse is the single person who is paying attention to Lazarescu. She is not fighting for him like a relative would have done perhaps, but she’s staying, she’s very close to him. She is full of compassion. She is human. Some people have written that she is Mr. Lazarescu’s guardian angel, but really she is just a normal person faced with a choice—what is her position, what will she decide.

It was part of the job, but then she has to leave and continue her job. Maybe in real life, a person would think of this for one more day and then forget. So this was a problem. But at the same time her leaving was somehow for the benefit of the film. Why should she have stayed with him? There is no reason; she has to do another job.

It would be another kind of story if she had stayed.

Yes, a melodrama. Telling us what? That there are some good people in the world? We know that. The story of Lazarescu has to end like this.

One of things that struck me on re-watching the film is how much time we spend in his apartment.

Yes, it is 55 minutes before they leave the apartment. I needed this duration to show him alone—especially for the first 15 minutes. You see, I am very scared of this loneliness. I am very scared of separation. The film was invited to 70 or 80 festivals, and I only went to five of them because I don’t like to leave home, to separate myself from those I love. So it was important to me to show him alone.

That said, I think that (though I may not be in the best position to comment on this) when you watch the film for a second time, the beginning of the film is a huge bonus. You know what’s going to happen to Mr. Lazarescu, so you are much more focused on what he is saying, because he is not unconscious, he means everything he says, he is in control of himself.

For me it was very important to establish these facts—I had two years of hypochondria. At the time I was watching a lot of films. Once I was watching a gangster film with James Cagney, The Roaring Twenties. The music and the era and the clothes and the props and the sets and the faces were not my world. I didn’t live in that time. I only know it from the movies. I was really scared of dying at the time, yet I became very involved with this movie. I like James Cagney very much. I feel very comfortable watching him, his acting. He’s full of energy. The story was quite simple, nothing spectacular, but I was enjoying it. And then suddenly I asked myself the question, if I die right now, who will die? Me with my life story or me as a spectator of this film? A guy who identifies with James Cagney on the screen, with this music and that era, a period of time I know nothing about. Everything seemed to me very fake.

This was a sort of starting point for Death of Mr. Lazarescu. I thought this is so fucking absurd: to leave this world with someone else’s stories in your head. You build your identity, your life, your self-image, your way of thinking, way of acting, way of being; and suddenly, when you say goodbye to the world, you hear someone speaking about a football game or a new BMW model. You leave this world with this kind of shit in your head. So what interested me was, what is happening in the head of someone who is dying?

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

What sorts of things are going through Lazarescu’s head?

I worked very hard on this. To suggest things, for instance, when Lazarescu is waiting for the medicine from his neighbors. While he is sitting on the stairs, a woman and her daughter walk by (my wife and older daughter actually). I put this there because I wanted to make him think of his wife and his daughter. There are pairs of women throughout the film. That’s why, for instance, there are two women washing him in the end. There were some other moments when choosing female doctors was important. It is quite impossible not to think of your own stuff, of your own problems, of your own suffering when you are watching a woman’s face and you know that there are very important women in your life. That’s why it was very important for the film to have at the end three women—this is before the paramedic leaves—as a parallel to his wife who is gone, his daughter in Canada, and his sister who is coming. His life was conditioned by women, determined by women. That is why the scene where he is losing his hair, I would compare to Samson and Delilah. He is losing his energy. Delilah is the woman who is cutting the hair. I wanted this. I wanted a Lazarescu with a life determined by women.

So the story contains foreshadowing and parallels, and you chose a very evocative, allusive name for Lazarescu. Where does this impulse come from? Do you plan to do the same in your next film?

No, I don’t plan to repeat it. In our discussions, Razvan, my co-screenwriter, said that I used to say we live in a perfect world created by God. And if this creation is perfect, it means everything is related to everything. From close or even afar, there is some interaction between us even if we don’t know it. Maybe you interact with the Amazon Delta, though you might never know how. I think there is a certain determinism. The same goes for characters from novels and universal literature.

Razvan thought the contrary. He used to say, even if there is no God, everything is related to everything. It makes sense, of course, that things are related. And in fact what is funny and sad at the same time, is that we are condemned to make sense of and to search for hidden meaning in certain events or certain names. And so we began to play with this: what is the proper name for an anonymous? Is it a banner name? Or, on the contrary, do you give him a name that signifies something? We chose this latter route, playing with names and signs and inserting premonitions of death. For instance, there is the neighbor coming with the drill he borrowed, and the doctor from the CT scan who says Lazarescu has to go to the neural surgeon to have his head drilled.

There are lots of things at the end of the film that relate to the beginning, some in the script and some I discovered in the shooting. That’s why when we shot in the apartment, we chose not to make many changes. They had this washing machine in the kitchen with this round window. I shot Lazarescu speaking on the phone in conversation with a wide angle because I wanted to have this washing machine in the image—it reminded me of the round gate of the CT scan. It was a visual premonition of it. I discovered little things like this because we shot the film in the hospital and then came back to the apartment. Though the last thing we shot was the shaving of his head, which was really delicate.

Your plan for Six Stories From the Bucharest Suburbs reminds me not only of Rohmer but also James Joyce’s Dubliners, which he described as a “chapter in the moral history of his country.” Do you hope to achieve something similar?

Ultimately, I really want to get six films that evoke this period of time with a strong and important documentary dimension. I am searching now for Romanian films made in the Seventies and Eighties. I was born in 1967, so this period of time is very important to me. Romania has changed a lot. It is very hard to find images of old Bucharest in Romanian fiction. From time to time you can see a corner of the university square or the royal palace, old cars and tramways and things like this. And when I see them, I become very nostalgic. It moves me a lot when I see this—even if the film is stupid.

The same thing happened to me recently. While on a trip I went to a movie that was shot in the neighborhood where I grew up—and I was moved just by that, not by the movie.

Yes, and this is important, a film’s background. People, cars, buildings—they move me a lot. I would like to get important parts of Bucharest in my films. This film was Bucharest by night, but I want to shoot the next one during the day with exteriors and open space.

What will it be about?

I want to develop a story about adultery, and it’s not easy at all. Partly because so many films have been made on this topic. And I would like to tell the story of the body of the adultery—usually you start with its head or its tail. The head is how you fell in love with a woman who is not your wife, and the tail is how your wife discovered the adultery and then the action starts. It has to be possible to build a drama based just on the body: a relationship you have with a woman who is not your wife that your wife will never discover. Since it is like this, how do you build the drama when there is no conflict? I am very interested in this. Otherwise it is very artificial—you know, with a narrator who says, “Here I am going to tell you the story of my first experience, how I became a sinner.” I’m really working hard on this, and it is not easy.

I am afraid as I have talked with you about Death of Mr. Lazarescu, I have made make it sound so serious and highbrow. It is not a cerebral film, but an emotional one. Still, were you concerned as you were making it that your film would be seen as something like medicine (which would be ironic considering its subject), something that is good for one, but not something one enjoys? Or do you see this as a false distinction?

I think that every human being has friends and enemies. I am like everyone else and this model applies to the movies I make: some people like them and some others don’t. And this is okay. What is really great in filmmaking (and in art, in general) is that people you have never met, from another corner of the world and a different culture, can write about your film and really get it. They understand every detail of your film, your point of view, your philosophy, your pain. You read the review and your fear of death starts to diminish. I call those people potential friends. Being asked so many times for whom I am making films, I’ll answer now (and to you, too, even if you didn’t ask me this): I make films for myself, for my friends, and for my potential friends.