Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Healthcare Satire

Romanian director Cristi Puiu

When Romanian director Cristi Puiu's second feature The Death of Mr. Lazarescu played at the New York Film Festival last fall - following its prize-winning appearance at Cannes - it was the sleeper hit of the festival, but seemed to lack commercial value for any U.S. distributor.

But now, thanks to Tartan Films, the 37-year-old director's masterpiece is having its premiere run at Film Forum in New York, with other cities to follow. Puiu--who also collaborated with Lucian Pintilie, the dean of Romanian filmmakers, on his latest effort, 2003's Niki and Flo--has made an original, acerbic and entirely persuasive black comedy about the truly thin line between life and death in a post-Communist world. At 2-1/2 hours, the uncompromising Mr. Lazarescu is often difficult to watch; yet its true greatness lies in the fact that Puiu has gotten all the details right, from the gradual acceptance by the old man of his sadly inevitable fate to the bumbling and inept bureaucracy ill-equipped to deal with an everyday tragedy.

Recently, Puiu answered several questions about his film, his brilliant lead actor Ion Fiscuteanu and his relationship with Pintilie.

Kevin Filipski: Your film is seen as a savage black comedy in America: was it well-received or criticized in Romania? Was it seen as reality or exaggeration?
Cristi Puiu: I don't really a realistic film, like a satire, like a black comedy. Like everywhere else, the film was successful in Romania. Both critics and audiences received it with a certain enthusiasm, and I think this is due to one reason: the "Un Certain Regard" Prize won in Cannes. Of course, critics appreciated the film for its intrinsic qualities, but for Romanians, Cannes is the most important film festival and getting a prize there is a sort of national pride. Basically, we encountered three kinds of reactions from audiences: 1. "This is so realistic it seems to be a documentary on our health care system!" 2. "The director was too kind. In real life, the doctors are worse!" 3. "This is really exaggerated - the doctors are not so mean!"

KF: Your lead actor Ion Fiscuteanu is remarkable: where did you find him?
CP: I was led to him by his performance in a short comedy Humanitarian Aids by Hano Hoffer. He played a part based on silences and gestures. I said to myself that this could be my Mr. Lazarescu, and I searched for other films he made. After rewatching Mircea Daneliuc's Glissando and Alexandru Tatos' Forest Fruit, I decided to go to Targu-Mures, the town where Ion Fiscuteanu is living, to offer him the part of Mr. Lazarescu. He is a huge star there, but mostly as a theater actor. In my opinion, he is one of the best Romanian actors ever, but stupidly and inexplicably underrated.

KF: How difficult was it to shoot this film? Did you need permission to shoot in certain locations? CP: It was very difficult for a lot of different reasons: it was hard to get the money and what we got in the end was not sufficient; we needed to shoot in hospitals and we needed authorizations from these institutions; we shot during the night from 8pm to 6am for 39 nights; and of course the subject.

KF: What idea did you begin with? Was it always to be a 2-1/2 hour film?

CP: Usually I don't start from an idea, but from an observation: the first thing that occurs to me is to be struck by the evidence of something that is actually happening in real life, in my world, in front of my eyes. It is just after this that I start to invent, to conceive and to imagine the film. Work on Lazarescu started with me thinking of having ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and being unable to express my thoughts and feelings, and continued months later when I started thinking of the similarity between the repetitive music of Philip Glass and a real case that took place in Bucharest some years ago when six different hospitals refused to hospitalize an almost unconscious patient brought by an ambulance (after being sent away by the sixth hospital, the paramedic from the ambulance decided to leave the patient in the street, where he died a couple of hours later). So I projected myself into this patient's skin and started conceiving the film as a piece of repetitive music on the theme of "departure surrounded by indifference." The original script has 148 pages. The film is 153 minutes, credits included. So yes, I did intend to make a 2-1/2 hour film after deciding not to restore the story of Lazarescu's departure in real time (which is seven to eight hours).

KF: You cowrote the script for Niki and Flo, the most recent film by one of the world's greatest directors, Lucian Pintilie. How did you come to work together? How was it working with him?
CP: I wrote the script for Niki and Flo with Razvan Radulescu and, for me, it was like writing for myself. From the screenwriter's point of view, this was the single time when I experienced the liberty of expression. Pintilie did not intervene in the script, he just let us create the whole thing. I'm saying this because we did write for other directors and it was really painful. I met Pintilie in 1999 when I started working on my first feature, Stuff and Dough. He liked that script very much and asked me to sell him the script and let him make the film. I said no and I started shooting. When, six months later, the producers told me that they didn't have any money to finish the film, Pintilie concluded a deal with them and saved the film. So, now I can say that I owe my debut in cinema to Lucian Pintilie. Another six months later, he watched the finished film and got so enthusiastic he asked us to write another script for him. And that was Niki and Flo.

KF: After The Oak and An Unforgettable Summer, Pintilie disappeared, at least in America. Is he popular in Romania?
CP: He is considered the most important Romanian director but, in terms of popularity, the most important remains Sergiu Nicolaescu. For me, cinema is a two-headed monster: one turned towards art and the other turned towards entertainment. As you probably know, popularity comes from entertainment. I see Pintilie as an old and bitter knight fighting this cinematic monster and systematically cutting off the "entertainment head."

KF: Are you working on any new projects?
CP: I am working on the second film of this series of six films called Six Stories From The Bucharest Suburbs (Lazarescu was the first.) The "Atelier du Festival" at Cannes selected my next project so, during the next Cannes Film Festival, I'll be there trying to find partners for my next film.
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