Sunday, March 16, 2008

Film Review #153: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
2005/DVD 2006
Director: Cristi Puiu
Cast: Luminita Gheorghiu, Ion Fiscuteanu, Daru Ana

Both films are about unwanted teen pregnancy, but there’s no mistaking the new and widely respected Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days – which has just briefly played at Manlius Cinema – with Juno. That mere blink of an eye in which Ellen Page’s chatty teen-ager considers and dismisses the possibility of abortion? Cristian Mungiu’s film is all about that “option” as it played out in 1987, in the depths of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dysfunctional regime, two years before the dictator’s own bloody demise. Mungiu’s film is harrowing and in one late section, when the student roommate, a soberingly indomitable young woman, is traversing some dark alleys and stairwells to dispose of her friend’s fetus, you find yourself filled with dread, for her safety and really for the well-being of us all.

Inscrutably passed over for Oscar nomination – much to the consternation and surprise of numerous reviewers – Mungiu’s film is part of the surge of new Romanian cinema that came to our attention several years ago with Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005). Mungiu uses the same cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, so both films have a similar look and feel – there’s the strange sensation of events on the brink of chaos that a camera has locked onto, as if only the shoot itself holds things together. And again, there’s a female performance and character of understated yet profound humanity. Luminita Gheorghiu’s portrayal of Mioara Avram, the nurse-paramedic who accompanies Dante Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) on his final night’s journey through four different city hospital emergency rooms, is itself reason enough to rent this movie.

Red-haired and a little blowsy, in her mid-50s, smoking whenever she can and bothered all night by her own gall-bladder pain (nasty, by the way, especially when your job entails hauling heavy bodies around through a night shift in a cold, lurching ambulance), Mioara arrives at Lazarescu’s dismal high-rise at ten o’clock on a late October Saturday night. He has a terrific headache, his stomach hurts, he smells of alcohol and he vomits several times.

Lazarescu has three cats whom the neighbor’s wife hates and you know will not be safe in his absence. He has a busy sister in another city who wants his pension check, a married daughter in Toronto, and lost his wife eight years ago. His gentle neighbor, Sandu (Daru Ana), is so huge he must stoop, emphasizing how tiny Lazarescu’s flat is. Focused, patient, fairly astute medically, Mioara decides Lazarescu must indeed go with her, but first she’s tempted – like every over-worked medical person he encounters – to dismiss his pains as drunkenness.

A huge accident in which a bus carrying children crashes complicates their journey. That carnage overwhelms all the hospitals ahead of them. At St. Spiridon, one doctor calls Lazarescu “you pig” for requesting more courteous treatment. At University Hospital, a morose figure in a flowing black cape meets the ambulance in the parking lot with, “Please go away.” At Filaret Hospital, doctors determine Lazarescu needs surgery after wasting long moments chastising Mioara for challenging their authority by suggesting it. At Bagdasar Hospital, near the end of the night shift, he’s finally prepped for surgery.

Along the way, Lazarescu deteriorates, wets himself, begins to speak deliriously, lapses into coma just before dawn. He’s stripped, washed, his torso draped with a clean sheet. An aide pats his newly shaved skull, calls him “Handsome.” Instead of leaving him at any number of acceptable junctures, Mioara sticks by him, even defends him, touches him from time to time with a reflex that finally becomes tender. They exchange the kind of personal details, largely at Lazarescu’s persistent prompting – Mioara says early on, “This one likes to chat” – that make it hard to see another as an object and send out for croissants, as one doctor does, before his gurney’s out the door.

With great economy, Puiu provides the weary emergency room staffs through whose hands Lazarescu passes with enough traits that they light up for their few moments as individuals. The first physician who lectures and derides Lazarescu wears a haughty pompadour. One young doctor’s constant cracking of his chewing gum somehow summarizes his youth and energy. One woman physician secures a needed test for Lazarescu by tapping into her supervisor’s amorous intentions, while at the next stop the model-glamorous blond doctor – she of the croissants – is locked in a power-fueled stalemate with her male superior that poisons every interaction in their vicinity like fall-out. The aides who finally wash Lazarescu’s body, unlike many of the previous younger women, are older, heavier, their thick hands and waists evoking some rural village where the women wash the dead for burial.

All these deft minor strokes evoke another, more classical journey through the underworld also famously peopled by vivid cameos. Puiu brackets his film early and late with this defining reference, identifying his main character’s full name as “Dante Remus Lazarescu” and the orderly called at the closing to “take him across” as Virgil. Puiu says he also called on the series ER for ambiance and background of a different sort – it’s a favorite of his, serialized on Romanian TV.

After a boatload of international prizes and US DVD release in 2006, this film has not done terribly well here, perhaps because of misguided marketing as an “acclaimed black comedy.” The DVD contains the US trailer with its hyper-edited snatches of dialogue and shots that create a wholly misleading slapstick impression. But Puiu says Romanian audiences did laugh at initial festival screenings, which he allows “surprised” him. If the film at Manlius is no Juno, this one isn’t The Bucket List either. Based on a real incident in which an ambulance visited six Bucharest hospitals in one night – Puiu says the repetition provided a structure that let him explore variations – this launches six films that will portray kinds of love. Puiu starts that series with “love of humanity.” Comedy yes - but of the divine sort.

This review appeared in the 3/13/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Film Review #152: Barrio Cuba
Director: Humberto Solás
Cast: Luisa María Jimenez, Mario Limonta, Jorge Perugorria, Adela Legra, Rafael Lahera
2005/DVD 2008

It’s remarkable how you remember some films, how you find they are crisp and clear in your mind much later and just as good now as when you first watched them, surprised and unsuspecting. Cuban director Humberto Solás’ Barrio Cuba, just out on DVD here, screened almost exactly a year ago – March 3, 2007 – at the DC Independent Film Festival in Washington, thanks to the persistence of DCIFF’s founder and director, Carol Bidault. She had seen Barrio Cuba abroad at another festival and endured lengthy negotiations to make the DC appearance happen. Barrio Cuba had its international theatrical premier later – in mid-July – in Spain. Perhaps needless to say, it has never opened theatrically here.

Two staff attached to the Washington Cuba Section Office came with the film that Saturday night, keeping to themselves in a strategic corner of the mezzanine balcony overlooking the main lobby on the University of the District of Columbia campus in northwest DC – this year’s DCIFF opens this weekend at George Mason University – even during the lively, pretty much continuous reception between and during screenings. The second in a trilogy of films about life in Havana’s slums, Barrio Cuba was extremely well-received by that festival crowd.

Many seemed to know Solás’ most recent previous film, Honey for Oshun, about a young man who searches for his lost mother after he discovers he was taken out of Cuba illegally as a child by his father. Honey for Oshun released in 2001, the year after the notorious Elián González affair in which a boy brought to Miami by his mother was returned to his Cuban father after court battles by Miami relatives and middle of the night seizures by federal agents. I had seen Honey, which shares four principal cast members with the newer film, at a May Memorial Church fund-raiser several years ago and watching Solás at work in Barrio brought memories rushing back. Whatever else has been going on under Fidel, the 67-year-old Solás – who started his film career in 1961 with shorts and docs, appreciates and explores women as few male directors do, and survived Cuba’s aggressively anti-gay state policies that began in the 1970s – can sure still make movies.

In the past year since DCIFF, three have become available in the US, notably through First Run Features’ 5-disc Cuban Masterworks set, which has come out one disc at a time: A Successful Man (1987), about two brothers’ divergent political paths and their family newspaper from the 1930s through Castro’s revolution; Amada (1982), about a cross-class Havana romance in 1914; and Cecilia (1981), about racial tensions circa 1830. Solás’ 1968 sensation about three women who embody three critical time periods, Lucía, exists on DVD but sadly not in US format.

The plotline of Barrio Cuba also revolves around three women and their trials, partings, longing for children, family, connection and reconciliation. The nurse Magalis (Luisa María Jimenez) rides her bicycle to the hospital – already exhausted by her father’s bickering with her younger brother Willy over his decision to come out as a gay man and by husband Alfonso’s wandering – past the shop where much older Ignacio (Mario Limonta) watches her daily, besotted. Chino (Jorge Perugorria) picks up Vivian (Isabel Santos) from her all-night shift at the pharmacy. Prodigiously passionate, their marriage breaks under the strain of her miscarriage and his own family’s grief as a younger brother leaves Cuba, taking the young grandsons with him. Amparo (Adela Legra) welcomes the pregnant wife Maria (Ana Dominguez) of her son Santo (Rafael Lahera) into her tiny barrio home, only to have Maria die in childbirth. We measure the film’s time frame – years longer than we might think without this yardstick – by the growth of the boy Miguelito, whom Santo leaves with Amparo when he takes to the road, unable to bear Maria’s death.

We meet all of these characters, save Miguelito, in the film’s opening moments, as Havana sets out en masse, gamely, even energetically for its worn, tattered day. One of the shocks of this film, which steals over you gradually, is the depth of material privation in everyday Cuban life after decades of embargoes and sanctions. Yet this city is gorgeously filmed and these emotional lives rich, full-bodied, nuanced, utterly convincing. Every major character weeps at some turning point. Esteban Puebla provides a musical score of startling lush emotional power. Such filmmaking has a confidence and sweep that leaves much of American mall cinema seeming rotely hesitant by comparison, even in Solás’ refusal to create artificial connections among his subplots. Instead, he simply pans across the sky to the next location, picking up that story where he left off, relying on the momentum of emotional resonance to keep its balance. Remember that first time you rode without training wheels?

This review appeared in the 3/6/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.