This is cinéma vérité, the jiggly hand-held camerawork letting us experience first-hand Mr. Lazarescu’s queasiness and unsteadiness. It’s the TV show ER at a snail’s pace minus the star power and the snappy repartee; the action consists mostly of waiting, complaining, and the repeated shunting of this one pathetic patient from one useless hospital to the next.
But it’s also a legendary saga: the passing from this earth of an everyman named Dante Remus Lazarescu, who finds himself shuttled through the outer circles of hell even before he’s dead. Mr. Lazarescu is a wholly insignificant loser, but didn’t the Greeks believe that the gods often disguised themselves in just such a figure? Romulus founded Rome and was transported bodily into the afterlife, but what happened to his brother Remus? Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but Lazarus died eventually anyway. Jesus too.
The movie chronicles Mr. Lazarescu’s personal Via Dolorosa. His last supper is a couple of pills washed down by a glass of cheap booze; his companions are his three fleabag cats. Instead of a thorny crown he’s got a splitting headache; instead of a centurion’s spear releasing blood and water from his side he suffers from abdominal pain and blood-laced watery vomit. He’s not nailed to a cross but stretched out on a gurney, ferried by ambulance through the stations of his final journey like a passenger on Charon’s boat. The nurses and doctors hurl verbal barbs at him for drinking too much and wasting their time whining about his hangover. He falls once, twice, three times, but Mary the ambulance nurse is always there to help him get back on his feet. Instead of the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin we’ve got CAT scan images of his liver tumor and his subdural hematoma.
At the last hospital we see the two women preparing his naked body and wrapping him in a sheet. Nearly dead now, Mr. Lasarescu is getting prepped for a surgery that in all likelihood will never be performed. Virgil the orderly is going to take him “across to the other side,” where Dr. Anghel awaits his arrival.