MR. LAZARESCU Death Takes a Romanian Holiday

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
dir. Cristi Puiu

When an ER doctor's notion of a helpful bedside manner consists of screaming at an old man on a gurney, "Who do you think you are!? I'll blow you and your ulcer to bits!" you know there must be something wrong with health care in Romania. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is, as the title promises, an account of the passing of a curmudgeon with the astonishing name of Dante Lazarescu Remus (Ion Fiscuteanu). If Mr. Lazarescu had expired at home, blanketed by the hair of his three mangy cats and buffeted by currents of alcohol, his story might well have left me unmoved. But as depicted by writer-director Cristi Puiu (also, to my ear, memorably named), the hospitals of Bucharest are a sort of 10th circuit of hell, and anyone subjected to their mundane terrors deserves your pity—even, perhaps, your unconditional love.

Mr. Lazarescu begins his journey with a headache that lasts three days. (Or is it a stomach complaint? Even he seems uncertain.) Between swigs of a noxious sweetened moonshine known as Mastropol, he telephones his sister. She advises him to stop drinking. He takes another gulp. He calls an ambulance; the dispatcher is unimpressed. Mr. Lazarescu shuffles over to the neighbors' for a painkiller, but they're making quince jam, and the wife, though solicitous, is overly protective of their medicine stash. Her husband is more sympathetic, but it turns out he was the one who manufactured the Mastropol—perhaps his opinion isn't to be trusted. Whatever their flaws, the neighbors successfully cajole the ambulance company to send an EMT, and Mr. Lazarescu's real adventure begins.

Under fluorescent light, the doctors and nurses and admitting staff of various Bucharest hospitals stage their petty romances (a suspiciously high proportion of these doctors are drop-dead gorgeous young women) and grandiose turf wars (the doctors all like to work out their egos on Mr. Lazarescu's EMT, a middle-aged woman named Mioara). Everyone's preoccupied with a massive traffic accident that floods the ERs with almost comically bloodied bodies. Director Puiu has cited the TV show ER as an inspiration, but those adrenaline spikes of crisis are completely absent here. The staff drifts aimlessly, more sleep-deprived adversaries than heroes.

If any comparison bears scrutiny, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu might be described as a morbid Groundhog Day, with every crowded new hospital heralding another round of prodding and original diagnoses. Meanwhile, Mr. Lazarescu's motivation and alertness, his ability to use prepositions and track moving fingers, drain away. It's hard to say where it happens, but somehow you begin to care. Mr. Lazarescu may have been a crank, but I sort of miss him still. ANNIE WAGNER

Interkosmos
dir. Jim Finn

Interkosmos, the first feature from experimental shorts director Jim Finn, successfully bridges the gap between the filmmaker's noggin and the comprehension of the audience. Not every notion fully registers, but Finn scores enough hits to mark this poker-faced saga of far-out space nuts as a transcendent goof.

Shot in an artfully cruddy mix of Super 8 and 16 mm, the film purports to tell the story of the theoretical East German space program, complete with a series of hilariously low-rent training programs and stress tests (watch out for the tarantula). From this fertile premise, Finn constructs a rather astonishing replica of boxy '60s Soviet style and tone, bolstered by a series of barely-there special effects (the Tinkertoy space colony is a particular delight), and a propulsive, gloriously kitschy soundtrack. The absurdly extended end-credit/musical coda sequence alone may be enough to warrant admission.

Narratively speaking, the film focuses on the burgeoning romance between female cosmonaut "Seagull" and the fiercely mustached "Falcon," mainly conducted via intercom from their respective orbits around the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Any real semblance of plot, however, is continually at the mercy of whatever the director feels like riffing on at the moment, be it a digression on the socialist nature of dolphins, or stop-motion animation of a guinea pig in a spacesuit, or, in what may be the film's highlight, a gloriously lead-footed musical number performed by rival field hockey teams. Taken individually, these scattershot non sequiturs don't always fly, with perhaps one too many musical interludes. On the whole, however, Finn's seemingly random whims combine to form some sort of wobbly, infectious gestalt. "Capitalism is like a kingdom of boneless children," Seagull wistfully intones at one point. Trust me, it works in context. ANDREW WRIGHT

Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul
dir. Fatih Akin

The director of the lauded drama Head-On, about Turkish immigrants living in Germany, proves that documentary can be far hollower than fiction. A frankly nonnative account of the many thriving music scenes in Istanbul, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul sounds lovely and covers a lot of ground. I'm a big fan of cheesy Turkish pop music, so I'm sorry to report that Tarkan merits only a passing mention here. We do, however, hear from middle-aged pop chanteuse Sezen Aksu, grunge-inspired rock bands, Romany folk revivalists, and most memorably, a Kurdish singer named Aynar who performs a marrow-chilling dirge in an 18th-century bathhouse. The music is great, but it would have been nice if our Western guide, German experimental rocker Alexander Hacke (who composed the score for Head-On), had chosen a slightly less obtrusive profile. Greasy-haired and pushy, Hacke inserts himself into every ensemble that can tolerate an extra bass guitar (and some that can't). He makes the ethnic tourism that's the obvious subtext here uncomfortably explicit. ANNIE WAGNER