For all that I bitch about the tedious movies that I see these days, I do live just one short el ride from the second-best art movie market in North America. Sure, a lot of what gets into art theatres is crap nowadays, but lo and behold I actually saw something like a masterpiece on Saturday.

The film in question is Romania's The Death of Mr. Lǎzǎrescu, and it's just about the most depressing movie I've ever seen in a theater: Lǎzǎrescu Dante Remus (Ion Fiscuteanu) is extremely sick. His neighbors call an ambulance. The ambulance attendant Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu) takes him to the hospital, which doesn't want him. So they go to another. And another. And another. All while Lǎzǎrescu deteriorates and loses all track of what's going on.

Like the ads say, it's a comedy; but they make very little effort to suggest how exceedingly black it is. It's not "haha, the hospital is incompetent," nor is "haha, if I don't laugh I'm going to go insane"; it's "haha, Lǎzǎrescu is going to die because of bureaucracy." There are no laughs in the film: snorts of absurdist derision, yes, but nothing mirthful happens for any of the movie's 143 minutes. And yet it's hard to call it anything but a comedy; it's miserably sad but never tragic, and the whole thing is colossally absurd. The co-writer/director Cristi Puiu has described it as a satire of the Romanian healthcare industry, and it's in keeping with my recent investigations into the question "what makes satire work?" that this film agrees with me completely: it's effctive because it pulls no punches. It's nasty to the audience, making us watch the nearly real-time death of an old man (all that is cut is the ambulance's lengthy criss-crossing through Bucharest).

I've noticed a strong tendency in European art films recently to use handheld cameras almost exclusively. This has a curious twinned effect, to make the cinematography rawer and more immediate (documentary-like, if you will), but also to cut the audience off from the film - in an almost Brechtian way, it reminds us that there's a cameraman, and we're watching actors. Mr. Lǎzǎrescu uses handheld cameras, of course, and the effect is precisely to do both of those things, but there's a twist: most of this film takes place in exceedingly long takes, over scenes that last sometimes as long as 40 minutes, and almost all of that time is spent waiting for someone to arrive, stamp a paper, make a phone call. The shaky handheld camera starts to take on the persona of an impatient man in line, looking around for anything to make the time go faster. In essence, the camera communicates impatience. And for a film with a primary theme of the endless waiting game in a bureaucracy, that's a pretty impressive camera move.

The other theme is not suffering, as the title might imply, but the capacity of humans to be uncaring. Puiu has also said that the film is meant to be the anti-ER, a deliberately unsexy story of surly doctors being unheroic. And indeed, the doctors all border on abusive, refusing to treat Lǎzǎrescu because of his obvious alcoholism, or simply because they're too tired. Even Mioara, who at first seems to genuinely care for Lǎzǎrescu's well-being, simply grows tired of her charge as the long night wears on, and desires nothing more than to drop him off somewhere to die in peace (in the real story that inspired the film, the ambulance attendant did just that, leaving a patient on a curb after five hospitals refused to admit him).

Lǎzǎrescu Dante Remus is obviously a symbolically laden name, and while it's easy to point that out, it would be insane to ignore it. Obviously, there's the idea of dying and rising present in the name Lazarus/Lǎzǎrescu (and it's clearly ironic; there shall be no rebirth for this man), but what jumped out at me was "Dante": Mr. Lǎzǎrescu is journeying through hell, make no mistake, even if he only must visit four circles (five, including his filthy Limbo of an apartment). What is truly extraordinary is the second to last line of the film: "Virgil is coming to take him to Anghel." Virgil and Anghel are literally hospital staff; that said, it's not worth belaboring the "actual" meaning of the sentence: this Dante is being brought to redemption, just like his namesake. And then the final line demolishes everything: the same nurse who predicts Virgil's arrival complains that none of this is her problem. Mr. Lǎzǎrescu may reach heaven, but nobody cares.

And so Comedy devolves into farce, and I sit in the dark and recall that Puiu wants to make five more films about life in suburban Bucharest, and to be honest? I'm looking forward to it very much.i