Saturday, March 15, 2008

Moartea domnului Lăzărescu | The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Hadas Leffel, intern at the UN CCPR and Executive Director of Back From Utopia: Human Rights and Cinema in Post-Communist Societies, provides the following review of Director Cristi Puiu's take on the essential reason for which we should respect human rights, as presented in the award-winning Moartea domnului Lăzărescu. An expanded version of this post will be included in a volume on Cinema and Human Rights (eds. Koen de Foeyter, Iulia Motoc, Ema Sandon and William Shabas) to be published as part of the Cambridge University Press EIUC series in 2009.

How can we love them if they have fleas?

What do we know about Dante Lazarescu? Miki and Sandu, his next-door neighbors, would be happy to provide a detailed list of his odious habits: sloth; overindulgence in alcohol, tobacco and medication; lack of hygiene. Another vice they might mention is Lazarescu’s preoccupation with his cats, which is repeatedly criticized and trivialized. When we are first introduced to Lazarescu, even as his own body is on the verge of collapse, Lazarescu does not fail to ask his cats how they are doing. His neighbors, however, repeatedly encourage Lazarescu to get rid of the cats. They are described as filthy and disease ridden; they consume without producing. As Sandu says to one cat: “You’re nice and cozy now that you’ve found a fool.” Lazarescu counters these accusations innocently, describing his cats as undemanding: “all they need are some bones and maybe some fish to eat.”

Lazarescu doesn’t require much sustenance either. As an elderly, unhealthy man with few resources, however, he is also consuming without producing: a non-contributing member of society. He is a retired engineer from the age of Romanian Communism, a relic. His social utility has long expired and, like his cats, Lazarescu’s estimated valued worth is measured in utils in the film’s loveless world. He is inconsequential: a man as useless as the cats he is urged to discard. Why, then, do we care for Dante Lazarescu? We care for the very reasons that those around him criticize, marginalize and even punish him. In one instance, when asked “How do you feel?” Lazarescu answers: “Do you know how much I love my cats?” and he does, just by virtue of their existence. Lazarescu thus embodies the same moral principle that is so noticeably missing from the world around him: Unconditional Love. His capacity for love is neither a redemptive quality nor a personal characteristic. It is, rather, a symbolic essence that is embedded in him without any logical justification. As Puiu says, “If we split human beings into a human part and a spiritual part, [Lazarescu] is the human part, the part that dies. He's secondary.” The primary element is not Lazarescu himself, but the love he embodies. He is its object, just as he is the object of others’ neglect and misconduct.

As we watch Dante Lazarescu’s descent, we intuitively judge the involved parties’ level of responsibility for his suffering and neglect. When Mioara warns Lazarescu against causing trouble at Spitalui Universitar, he asks: “Isn’t it the doctor’s duty to take care of the patient?” The ambulance driver responds by asking him “And what is the patient’s duty?” Here, as in the film as a whole, the attention to Lazarescu’s duty inevitably causes an inattention to his rights. The question of Lazarescu’s remains noticeably implicit in the film. The only occasion that touches upon Lazarescu’s legal rights is the surgeon’s refusal to operate on Lazarescu because he has not given his consent. What should be Lazarescu’s right to informed consent becomes his duty, a duty that he is unable to perform. If it is the doctors’ duty to care for patients, throughout the film we see them putting in the minimal amount of effort possible toward its fulfillment. The gross violation here is thus not of a professional medical duty, but of a basic human one. Puiu seems to be encouraging us to examine and define the moral duty of a human being. The language of human rights discourse provides a viable answer: the inherent dignity of a human person demands that the equal and inalienable rights of all people be respected and preserved. If a human being has an inherent right to dignity just by virtue of his/her existence, is it our moral duty to ensure that this right is respected?

In order to answer this question we must reassess the justification for the moral imperative to respect human rights. Puiu’s answer is simple: the only justification needed is Unconditional Love, the love that is the essence of the spiritual side of man embodied in the Christ-like Lazarescu. Like Christ, Lazarescu symbolizes Unconditional Love and like Christ he is a victim of the human collective. Lazarescu also reminds us, however, that unlike his namesake, Lazarus, there will be no Messiah to bring him back from the dead. Even the film’s title assures us that there will be no deus ex machina to save Lazarescu. Indeed, at the end of the film, Dr. Angel is called but never appears. In a world where religious belief has no place in society’s moral compass, it would hardly be reasonable to expect miraculous salvation.

There seems to be a missing link between the morality of human rights and the Christian idea of Unconditional Love expressed in this film. When we attempt to provide logical justification for the moral imperative reflected in Puiu’s notion of Unconditional Love we fall short. Without any religious ground for fulfilling our moral duty to uphold human rights standards, the concept of inherent dignity becomes questionable. Puiu has said: "We forget we are animals…I'd like to create situations that show the animal face of the human being."[1] It seems that Lazarescu had accepted this duality all along. When Sandu asks: “Why don’t you get rid of these cats?” Lazarescu responds: “Why don’t you get rid of Miki?” By the end of the film, Lazarescu and his cats stand on equal ground: bodies, animalistic. Lazarescu’s capacity for love, however, tells a different story. He knows that the love he shows for his cats cannot be reciprocated[2], yet he never ceases to impart it.

It seems that the consistent truth of the film is that it is the capacity for love that a person innately possesses that cements human dignity. Lazarescu’s dignity remains intact: his inalienable right. If we seek to secularize this love for the sake of a stable justification for human rights morality, there is no guarantee that it will maintain its foundation. We must ask, however, if there is a need, after all, to define a moral foundation in order to establish the practice of kindness. As Dante Lazarescu shows us, love will still exist no matter how we define it. It doesn’t need much sustenance.

[1] C. Bailey, Interview with Cristi Puiu in Now, March 30 – April 5, 2006. Vol. 25 no. 31.
[2] In a moment of weakness, Lazarescu sneers: “You don’t care, you bloody animal!”

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