Sunday, October 22, 2006

Fear and Death in Eastern Europe

The Fifth Horseman is Fear: (1964 film directed by Zbynek Brynych)

A different side of the Jewish persecution in Eastern Europe is shown here. There have been many movies made about the killings but this shows the mental humiliation induced by fear. A Jewish doctor in Prague can no longer practice his profession. But one day, he is asked to get morphine to save someone’s life. He tries his best to procure the medicine albeit living with the fear of what will happen when his identity is discovered. The film’s opening and closing shots are done quite well – they show a city living under watch. A street looks deserted but if you look closely, someone is keeping watch. No one can escape persecution and the only way to gain one’s dignity back might be in death….which leads us to the next film.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Directed by Cristi Puiu): Rating 10/10

This is vintage cinema! Filmmaking of the highest order. The best compliment a movie can get is that it does not feel like a film at all. Which is the case here. The thoughtful cinematography gives us a ring side to the events that unfold. We are in the room with Dante when he is having his headaches and pains. We see him throw up blood. We observe his neighbours only thinking selfishly about themselves. The nurse finally arrives and takes Dante away. But the drama does not end there. In fact, it is only starting. We observe the chaos and endless cycle of stupidity and inefficiency that exists in hospitals, continuously over-worked and under staffed. We truly believe that there is no hope for Dante. All the people around him keep telling him that. The film’s title is a reminder that Dante Lazarescu will die. But the truth is he died a long time ago. Dante himself stopped caring for his health and in return, society left him out in the cold. In reality, he is merely going through the motions of a formal medical death.

This movie has been called a dark comedy but I never looked at it that way. Yes, some of the things we observe in this movie are so absurd that you can’t shake your head in disbelief. But the truth is, these things are not isolated to Romania only. Such hospitals exist in all countries around the world, including Canada and North America. Yes even in Canada, people are left to rot in the emergency ward for hours. Public health care system, after all. We live in a world where spending billions in weapons is standard practice but spending money on health care is not important enough. We live in a world where the drug companies keep reaping profits at the expense of others. If someone has a pain, they are injected with drugs. The pain will eventually go away, but the body starts to rot, slowly, one organ at a time. This is Dante’s hell, his inferno. And we are there to watch. Should we call this movie a comedy or a tragedy? In the West, we can call this tragedy a comedy because maybe some critics feel that since we are isolated from the events on the celluloid that we can freely enjoy the hell ride. Heck, even I am rating this movie. But I don’t feel right in calling this even a dark comedy and I certainly don’t feel the trailers used in North America give a correct portrayal of the movie. Ofcourse, how else can this movie be marketed?
The truth is that every minute of this slow movie is absorbing and engaging because it drips with realism. We can understand the people around Dante, we see their selfishness. The argument I often hear in defense about Doctors indifferent behavior is that doctors often have to be cold, otherwise they won’t be able to do their jobs; if the doctors get emotionally attached to a patient, they might not be able to operate on the person. That is a valid point. A human body is just a lump of tissue. One smelly body is just like another. No emotion, no compassion. But then are the physical dead being operated on by the emotionally dead? Yes, in a cruel twisted logic. Hospitals are a messy place. Why? Our society has let them become so.

In the final scene, Dante finally finds peace. He is lying waiting for his operation. It is all silent around him as he lays on the cold table, in his hospital clothes. Will he survive? Or is he nodding off to his death? It does not matter. We have seen enough at this point. Fade to Black.

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