The story follows the final twelve or so hours in the life of a 62 year old widow, emblematically named Dante Remus Lazarescu, (Ioan Fiscuteanu). Suffering with stomach distress and a terrible headache (eventually diagnosed as a subdural hematoma and late stage liver cancer), he spends his last night being shuttled by ambulance, or rather by an ill-equipped van serving as ambulance, from hospital to hospital, unable to secure the emergency surgery that would save him. The hand-held camera and long uncut takes -some are six or more minutes- give the movie the feel of unfolding in real time. In places, it has the look of a documentary, and it has been compared to Frederick Wiseman's Hospital (1970).

Before the odyssey begins, we meet Mr. Lazarescu in the cramped, unkempt Bucharest apartment he shares with his three cats. Of his circumstances we learn that he is a retired engineer whose only daughter has emigrated to Toronto, and that despite having had ulcer surgery years earlier, Mr. Lazarescu drinks heavily. In his every encounter -with neighbors and with a string of doctors- he is reprimanded for his drinking, implicitly or explicitly blamed for his ill-health. From the television blaring in his apartment we hear news of a truck gone out of control that has rammed a tourist bus. Casualties from the accident are taxing hospital resources, which accounts in part for why this ill-smelling elderly man who appears to be drunk (but turns out to be having a cerebral bleed) is a low priority, although this doesn't account for the callousness with which he is treated by much of the medical staff.

The most significant relationship in the film is between Mr. Lazarescu and the ambulance nurse, Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) who shepherds him throughout the night. Almost everything we know about her is what one knows from watching someone at her job; in Puiu's hands, this vantage turns out to be richly informative. (Ms. Gheorghiu's body language speaks volumes.) Mioara and Mr. Lazarescu hardly speak to one another; they don't "open up" to one another or have a "meaningful moment," nothing to compare, for example, to the Popsicle scene between the nurse, Susie, and patient, Vivian Bearing, in Wit (see annotation). The power of the relationship in this film is in what is not overt, but what is palpable nonetheless -that Mioara's presence means very much to Mr. Lazarescu, and that doing her job includes letting him know that she is standing by him, that he is the priority, the only priority. Mioara staunchly meets the irascibility and chastisement of various physicians in her efforts to advocate for her patient as he is passed off from one hospital to the next.


The tone of the film is not easily characterized; it has been described as a black-comedy, but nowhere is laughter offered as a defense against the grimness of mortality. In moments, the house staff's pitilessness and bureaucratic low expectations elicit a chortle of recognition, as when the neurosurgeon who is Mr. Lazarescu's last hope enters the exam room looking for a cell phone charger and subtly remains preoccupied with making his call throughout the sequence. The film's title has a playful ring, as the words Death and Mr. interact to a certain blithe effect, and the name Lazarescu, a Romanian Lazarus, hints that perhaps this night won't really end in death. On the other hand, the title's literal message, that this movie will include this character's death, puts the viewer in a position different from all the characters; we watch the film knowing from our first glimpse of him feeding his cat, what no one else knows: that this man will die tonight.

Understatement is key to the film's distinguished effect. The long takes, and intentionally abrupt cuts (Puiu acknowledges a debt to Andre Bazin's model of realism) leave the viewer on her own. We are not guided in our affective responses or our interpretations by cinematic devices such as music, reaction shots, length of take, or even close-ups -which are notably absent. The superb acting and direction give the spectator the sense of watching unmediated and unprocessed events. The openness of the viewer's experience calls out for discussion of individual scenes, many of which will undoubtedly read differently to different viewers.

The film offers multiple avenues of entry. Widely recognized as a searing critique of the Romanian health system, the film leads us to consider connections that are legible but not spelled out for the viewer: most notably, the impact of external and invisible socio-economic controls on treatment decisions, relations among staff and attitudes toward patients. The hospital culture represented in the film offers a very long list of topics worthy of discussion, including the differential treatment of a patient unaccompanied by a family member, or one who is not coherent, or is not clean; the spoken and unspoken priorities in the emergency room; night-shift issues; trading on friendship to get a patient treated more quickly. But this is also a film about, in Puiu's words, "the extinction of a human being, of a soul. He's going out, just like this" (Tartan Video booklet).

Notably, we don't have a conventional death scene in this film. After a long take of a nurse shaving Mr. Lazarescu's head in preparation for surgery, we see from across the room that he responds slightly when a nurse calls to someone who has the same name as his brother-in-law; then, abruptly, the screen goes black. Throughout this long night, the film encourages us to consider death as a process. Occupied by nausea, vomiting and head-ache, did Mr. Lazarescu encounter his own death? Did he know what was happening to him? This unsettlingly ambiguous ending encourages us to consider afresh the question of moment of death, in legal terms (brain or heart), and in terms of someone being "on their way out," as one of the physicians puts it. Lazarescu will die, if not from the hematoma then of the cancer in his liver. When is someone "as good as dead"? Under what conditions is a patient given up on? Impressively, Puiu's decision to keep the camera on the surrounding action of the medical staff as they examine, test, insult, ignore and finally prepare Mr. Lazarescu for surgery, draws the viewer more tightly into identification with the patient's internal state than if the camera had remained close up on him.

Primary Source

Tartan USA