End Zone: Moral Tales for our Times in Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mister Lazarescu

By Robert Chilcott

death-of-mr-lazarescu-cristi-puiu-1.jpgCristi Puiu

Shot in close to real time, with bare-bones naturalism and cramped, claustrophobic night interiors, Romanian Cristi Puiu’s much acclaimed second feature observes several hours in the life of a sick old man bounced from hospital to hospital, suffering repeated misdiagnosis from a bureaucratic and dehumanised health care service, his search for compassion ultimately a futile one.

Robert Chilcott: Are there deliberate parallels with Dante’s Divine Comedy and your film?

Cristi Puiu: There is a reference to it. We played a lot with significations, signs. I have a sort of theory: if this world is perfect, created by a perfect god, then everything is related to everything – so we play with Dante’s Inferno, there are also names from the Italian renaissance. Maybe it’s just my painting background, or maybe it’s the scriptwriter who is very much interested in baroque music.

RC: There have also been comparisons to Cassavetes...

CP: I discovered Cassavetes as a student in Geneva. One of my colleagues gave me a tape of A Woman Under the Influence I hated it, but it disturbed me and I watched it again and began to like it. After the third time I fell in love and started to search for Cassavetes. He became my sort of master. He died in 1989, the same year as the fall of communism – a coincidence, I don’t know? I make a lot of relations between things, you know, because somehow I am interested, as an amateur, in astrology, and numerology, science and proportions.

death-of-mr-lazarescu-cristi-puiu-2.jpgThe Death of Mister Lazarescu, 2005

I read the book by Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, and I really like the person in the book, not just him as the director. I like very much the search for truth, whether it is achieved in the films or not, and the fact that he was tortured by this. There is a moment in A Woman Under the Influence, shot with a handheld camera, where Mr Jensen is coming to pick up the kids, his kids – this moment stayed in my mind, and at that time I had no kids, now I have two daughters – this moment had a very specific texture. Every time when I start to think of a film I have this texture in my head, and if I don’t then I watch the film again.

RC: You are also influenced by Rohmer. Lazarescu is the first of six that you want to do as a homage to his Moral Tales?

CP: He is Aries like myself! What I appreciate with Rohmer is the fact that he is not judging his characters, he is trying to raise a question, and it is very difficult to do this. I try not to judge the doctors – that’s why I want to develop some characters, ones that are not developed enough in this film, in other films of this series. This was the concept. To go in the direction of Francois Truffaut, like in the Antoine Doinel series.

So the first doctor in this film is calling Lazarescu a pig, and so on, very aggressive, and I would like to have him in a story where we reveal his bright side, not to condemn him, because I don’t feel comfortable when my characters are being judged by myself.

I don’t like this position – maybe it is very much related to the way I am conceiving my life and behaving, because I don’t like to be judged and I know I am making lots of mistakes and very often I’m wrong, but at the same time I’m wrong and I make mistakes in order to do good things. It’s very complicated, but even this has its funny side, its dark side – you have these neighbours of Lazarescu who are trying to do good things, they are well intentioned, but they are so stupid, and so narrow minded and, somehow it’s ironic, but it’s not a joke.

RC: You describe the characters as being lethargic, in slow motion. Is this true of everyone now in contemporary society?

CP: I don’t know. I just notice this in Romania. Maybe it’s because of my experience. After the fall of communism everybody believed things would change rapidly.

Yet 15 years later it seems to be the same, nothing is changing and you want to do something and say fuck off. From time to time I am thinking this world could be better if we all decided to do things in order to satisfy the needs and desires of the people we love.

If everybody is thinking this way, maybe the world will be better because you will be related to your wife, to your family, and if she is related to her family, my brother is related to my wife, and to her family and so on. You have this ramification of love circulating, and everybody trying to do their best in order to satisfy, to be active. Very quickly I am getting bored of these speculations because life shows you every day that it is not easy and as soon as you want to change something you are in big trouble. I don’t believe in revolutions, I don’t believe in models. I do believe the Jesus Christ model is a very glorious one, even if it is fictional.

death-of-mr-lazarescu-cristi-puiu-3.jpgThe Death of Mister Lazarescu, 2005

RC: You’ve talked about how, after your first feature, you became depressed and a hypochondriac. Was any of this projected onto the character of Lazarescu?

CP: I think I am in the character. I think I am in all the characters. The neighbours – one is talking about this Mallory-Weiss Syndrome, vomiting blood. I had this in 2000. A blood vessel in your stomach breaks... I think I am everywhere. I am sarcastic from time to time like the one doctor, and cynical. I am patronising like the other doctor. I had cats, and these are the real names. I’m everywhere. It’s funny because I am, as I said, making lots of mistakes and I’m not behaving well, very often in the wrong. Sometimes I don’t allow myself to be wrong or make mistakes – this is when I’m making a film, and I don’t allow myself to make compromises. Much more than this, when I am filming I am very critical with myself and I enjoy it and I hope to change a bit but I am not sure.

RC: The long takes, the handheld camera – as is true of all films that use these techniques, it looks improvised, but it was actually more meticulously rehearsed?

CP: Well, three weeks before the shooting we rehearsed every day. I was shouting, I almost lost my voice. It was my decision to shoot using all these documentary devices, direct cinema devices, and it was very important to shoot on a handheld camera, and I wanted to shoot on film, on 16mm, because it was easier and lighter, for longer takes, but my DoP said no, we’d better shoot 35mm, and the camera was heavy, 25kilos. And we rehearsed with the camera, and it was so hard, because we used it without shooting, just rehearsing, long takes – three minutes, four minutes, maybe 10 rehearsals before shooting- and he was exhausted. The film started with the phone call, and we rehearsed so much that when he started to shoot he was shaking and trembling and couldn’t keep the camera still.

RC: That gives the film an uneasy feeling which works in its favour. Would you rather it not shake so much?

CP: I thought in this way, but I don’t know. Some people complain.

RC: Was it just shot with available light?

CP: We pushed up the intensity, changed the bulbs, to make the light look like reality. I am making this film for the actors, I want to watch them, and I want the camera to turn 360 and I don’t want to have tripods. We are shooting like a documentary, so I don’t want to fake the light, just to see in the film what we see in real life. You are searching, hunting the images, that’s why it was very important not to predict the movement of the actors. In Romania they say it is not artistic, the image sucks, it is ugly and, well...

RC: With all this rehearsal, how many takes were there? How long was the rough cut?

CP: We did about 8 takes on average. The cameraman was destroyed! This is the rough cut. Well let’s say it is 148 minutes, the rough cut was 152, and now it’s 154 with titles and credits.

RC: So you are working on the second ‘Moral Tale’ now?

CP: Yes. What I would really like, after finishing the whole series is, if this is possible, to induce this feeling, this impossibility, of changing the world. We still believe we can change things, but assuming that we cannot, this could be a good thing.

RC: Do you think Rohmer’s Moral Tales changed things?

CP: It changed me. You can change an individual who, later on, could be in the position to be a decision maker. This is the most important thing. The others will follow. You don’t have to change all the individuals. There is a writer I like from Argentina: Ernesto Sábato. He was asked once if literature and art can change the world, make it better, and he answered, “some centuries ago there was a man making miracles and he didn’t succeed in changing the world or make it better”, so I don’t really believe in this. But maybe, you know...

The Death of Mister Lazarescu is released in the UK by Tartan and opens on 14th July

Robert Chilcott is a writer and film-maker. He lives in London.