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The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a human reminder of the stakes of health care debates

The 2006 Romanian film descends with an old man into medical hell.

Ion Fiscuteanu in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Ion Fiscuteanu in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for March 11 through 17 is The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2006), which is available to rent on Vudu.

The big political debates in the US this week have been all about health care — who should have it? Who should pay for it? What types of care should we pay for? How does health insurance work, anyway? Will you have to decide between an operation and an iPhone?

In the middle of all the policy-related hubbub and quibbles over details like whether men should have to pay for women’s prenatal care, sometimes the human face of health care gets lost. Real people are affected, and real people are worried — not just about keeping their coverage, but about whether they’ll be forced to make difficult medical decisions based on finances while they or their loved ones are sick. Nobody's at their best when they're sick, and nobody's at their best when their loved ones are suffering. The thought of possibly having to make life-or-death decisions based on finances in such a scenario sounds like hell.

Speaking of hell: The 2006 Romanian movie The Death of Mr. Lazarescu puts a human face on medical hades, in a darkly comic (okay, very darkly comic) setting. Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is a 63-year-old Romanian man who doesn't have any family around to make medical decisions for him. When he starts experiencing serious stomach pain, he enlists the help of neighbors to call for an ambulance — and from there, he descends into bureaucratic hell as he’s shuttled from hospital to hospital because the ineffective and wildly understaffed institutions are either unwilling or unable to care for him. (Lazarescu's first name is Dante, a fairly obvious reference to the author of The Divine Comedy, which shaped modern conceptions of hell.)

Ion Fiscuteanu in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Ion Fiscuteanu in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Reviewing the film upon its release in 2006, the New York Times' Stephen Holden characterized it this way: “If you have ever found yourself left alone in a chilly room wearing a hospital gown in glaring fluorescent light, you will recognize that this is the way it is; you've become a harshly objectified human specimen: tiny, alone and vulnerable.”

That's exactly right. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a grim story that only becomes comedy because the situation becomes progressively more absurd. Of course, it’s set in Romania, and Romania's medical system is not at all the same as America’s.

But as anyone who's sat in an emergency room (or on the phone with an insurance company) knows, the layers of bureaucratic nonsense can be hellish even on a good day. There are several reasons for this, and individual players are rarely to blame — it’s the system they’re all part of that’s complex and often flawed.

What The Death of Mr. Lazarescu does best is take all that frustration and put it into one man’s story. As he suffers, we feel his pain and irritation by proxy. That kind of humanity is often missing from debates about policy — but there’s nothing more important.

Watch the trailer for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu: