Although The Death of Mr. Lazarescu did not play in official competition at Cannes, it still seems strange that it is fellow Romanian Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (which shares the same photographer, Oleg Mutu) that took home the Palm D’or this year. Although both films—questionably placed under a vaguely christened new wave of Romanian films—share a verité aesthetic, naturalistic mise-en-scène, and what could be called social realist stories, Mungiu’s film is much more modest and unexpected.
The two films have a surprisingly great deal in common, not just in their look but also in their narratives, focusing on behavioral reactions to the pragmatic and moral problems of medical treatment in Romania, and structured on emphasizing the subtle, gradual weight of layered time, of duration extended to a point of supreme bodily and spiritual trial. In this respect, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu’s development seems the most unusual, as the weight of the experience actually eventually incapacitates the protagonist, stopping him from being an active actor in the narrative two thirds of the way through the film. More intriguingly, in Mungiu’s film this oppressive weight already lays heavily on someone, and that someone is on the sidelines.
In this case, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a college student, has been tasked by her pregnant roommate Gabita (Laura Vasilu) to help her undergo an abortion, which was illegal in the era when the film was set, 1987. Understandably flighty, nervous, and forgetful, Gabita ends up leaving almost all work and details of the termination but the operation itself up to Otilia. This responsibility starts simply with borrowing small amounts of money and getting soap for Gabita’s secret stay at the hotel while she recovers, but as Gabita’s anxious, poor preparation becomes more evident, Otilia is awkwardly required to do much more. She must find a new hotel in which to have the operation, herself meet the man (Vlad Ivanov) who will perform the abortion, and eventually, distressingly, find a way to make up for the inadequate pittance of money the two girls scrounged up as payment.
Looking back on it, it may have been the unconsciousness of Lazarescu that rubbed me the wrong way about Puiu’s film, as if he as a character was eventually being used just as he was used as a patient by the various doctors that treated him throughout the film (this critique, I am aware, can also be seen as an auto-critique on the part of the filmmaker). One of the principle differences of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is that Otilia is painfully aware of the responsibilities she has, the support she needs to provide, and, perhaps most painfully of all, her own beliefs and feelings behind the face she must put on and actions she must perform for Gabita. In other words, the shift in focus is from one who is simply used (Lazarescu) to one whose agency and psychology weaves between assistant, instigator, observer, and participant.
It is a stroke of subtle inspiration that it is Otilia and not Gabita who is the focus of the story. Mungiu’s evocation of the almost ever-present fear and guilt that invades every physical space of the film becomes all the more poignant and heartrending because it comes not from the most obvious sufferer but from one at the immediate periphery. Mungiu’s story highlights this by playing up the realistic banality of the narrative, focusing on duration of real-time in long takes and keeping everything bound in claustrophobic closed spaces to emphasize the intensity of this small drama. The endless negotiation between the two girls, and the more and more aggressive man they hired for the operation, as well as a scene where Otilia breaks away from Gabita’s side to fulfill her requisite role as friendly girlfriend at birthday party at her boyfriend's, proceed at such a realistic pace and are filmed with such bald-faced acceptance of the strain and tedium of these moments that these sequences all but scream silently for Otilia’s pained, riotous, but ultimately mysterious inner life.
Regular spaces and regular interactions take on not the grim dark comedy of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu but rather a grave pressure cooker effect, tackling the scenario with such realism that the film nearly becomes unbearable as small actions, movements, looks, and utterances take on an affectation of desperation and the utmost importance. This importance turns naturally to anxiety, and leads the film’s gradual built up to a style nearly that of a thriller. Towards the end of the film Otilia stumbles out into the night in order to cover up a crime, and we lose the film’s previous, remarkable sense of real, gritty locations into the nighttime void. All that was built up inside—literally inside, as Mungiu’s respectful directorial style does not try to penetrate his characters’ minds, only observe behavior, so the inside is both interior space and their guarded psychology—all the moral, political, social, and bodily queasiness, a kind of abstract guilt and paranoia and anxiety, becomes freakishly real in the open, dark space of the night. The final shot, as banal and real and terrifying as any of the other sequences in the film, subtly promises the two girls a life after this horrid experience, but mournfully suggests that this night of angst, pain, and uncertainly may be but a microcosm of life in general in the Romania of 1987.