Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) lives alone in Bucharest with two cats. His wife has been dead for ten years, his sister lives in another part of the country and his daughter has emigrated to Canada. His flat is shabby and dirty. He is overweight and scruffy. And he drinks – a lot, it seems, and not just normal booze, but Mastropol, a local moonshine of a suspicious hue. When, one evening, Lazarescu complains of a headache that ‘comes from the stomach’, it’s his liking for the drink onto which a queue of knowing, dismissive, disapproving commentators – neighbours, paramedics, nurses, doctors – immediately latch. But it’s when Lazarescu first vomits over himself, blood and all, that we – armed with the knowledge of the title – begin to contemplate the power of death over life. A shadow hangs over Puiu’s handheld, docu-realist style – which compresses about six hours into two-and-a-half and gives the impression of real-time with long takes and acute attention to detail – and it’s a contemplative one. How might we ourselves die? Will we be prepared for it? Might death really arrive in such pedestrian, unexpected, awkward fashion, its only witnesses a room full of doctors and nurses who never knew us and treat us as little more than ageing, spent nuisances?
There’s a distaste for the youthful arrogance of the medical profession at the heart of Puiu’s film. Most of the film’s lengthy – never frustrating – running-time is taken up by ambulance trips between three hospitals and ruminations on hospital wards as to Lazarescu’s condition. While paramedic Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) is a sympathic figure, a succession of young doctors are condescending to her and downright offensive to Lazarescu, whom they ignore, patronise or treat as if he’s already dead or not in the room. ‘Did I put the bottle in your hand, you pig?’ asks one charming medic, convinced his illness is alcohol-related. ‘His liver is as big as the parliament house,’ says another in front of him. The behaviour of doctors provide the film’s many moments of black comedy, but Puiu is too intelligent to portray the doctors only as brutes. He has a sensitive touch for character and his overriding interest is human, not political. The film’s real success is that Puiu impresses both with his compassion for human behaviour and his tight grip on realist, documentary-style filmmaking.