BEIRUT: Anyone having suffered the misfortune of American television in the 1970s may well recall something called “Emergency!” One of the litany of doctoring dramas churned out in TV’s first half-century or so, its “innovative hook” was the pro-activity in its storytelling.
Rather than just hanging around the outpatients ward, leavening its tragicomic tales of human suffering with health care gossip, it followed a pair of firefighting paramedics in their compassionate-manly struggle to provide peacetime triage on the streets of LA.
“Emergency!” ran from 1972-79, back when people still believed public health was a right – before Reagan, Thatcher et al set about telling people this was a myth. In their wake, sunny representations of the paramedical trade were replaced by stuff like Martin Scorsese’s 1999 film “Bringing Out the Dead,” in which Nic Cage and John Goodman portrayed ambulance drivers laboring beneath the existential weight of dead and dying patients.
“Sofia’s Last Ambulance,” the debut feature of Bulgarian writer-director Ilian Metev, doesn’t remake Scorsese’s film, but it does follow his lead.
Metev’s film had its world premiere this spring at Cannes’s Semaine de la Critique, a selection devoted to new-ish filmmakers, which runs in parallel to the main competition. It’s in this capacity that the film will be projected at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Wednesday evening, wrapping up the cinema’s Critics’ Week cycle.
As the title promises, “Sofia’s Last Ambulance” is set in the Bulgarian capital, about now. It is one of those fictions that – in formal and narrative terms – seems like it could just as easily be a documentary.
The film stitches together episodes in the work life of ambulance attendants Plamen (Plamen Slavkov), Mila (Mila Mikhailova), and Krassimir (Krassimir Yordanov) – a driver, a nurse and a doctor, respectively.
They aren’t driving in Sofia’s “last” ambulance exactly, but it does appear to be the only one equipped to do emergency-response work.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance of Eastern Europe’s post-Soviet inheritance may surmise that whatever social welfare system there once was in Bulgaria was razed in the privatization lottery that followed the dawn of freedom there.
Though Metev’s film clearly stakes out a position on this bleak business, it doesn’t attempt to summarize the woeful details of the health care sector’s obsolescence, the way a television documentary might do.
Instead Metev has his lens look in on the crew’s daily routine. Much of the film’s action issues from cameras mounted on the ambulance’s dashboard, trained on the faces of its three occupants as they goof off, express fears about the speed of Plamen’s driving, or complain about money.
When it’s not eavesdropping on the trio’s conversation in the front of the ambulance, or Mila and Krassimir’s struggles with their stretcher-bound patients in the back, the camera follows them to whatever flat or street corner or country suburb they must navigate to find those in distress.
In the process, the film provides a sort of diagnosis of Sofia’s state of socioeconomic health.
When the crew turns up to collect a man suffering from a brain hemorrhage, his wife frets whether the hospital will turn him away.
The ambulance is later called to a flat where a man is suffering from a pain in this thigh. His wife is convinced this is a symptom of stroke and insists they bring him back to the hospital for a few days’ observation – “I will pay the nurses!” – though he has no overt symptoms.
They arrive at a house outside Sofia to find a woman dead on the floor, the tumor that killed her on the floor alongside the worms that have eaten away half her head.
Elsewhere, the mother of a bedridden 28-year-old junkie laments her failed efforts to wean him off the powdered brick he shoots in lieu of affordable heroine.
Stuck in traffic one evening, Plamen assesses the palaces in the well-heeled neighborhood they’re passing through, and wonders aloud how it’s possible for some people in this country to become so rich.
While en route to help a man unconscious in the street, the ambulance is struck by a reckless cabbie. He first claims he did nothing wrong, then says he did it on purpose to prevent them from doing their job.
If this doesn’t sound like a particularly nuanced reading of Sofia’s complex and variegated landscape, Metev might plead that his film makes no pretence to objectivity. His characters are health care professionals whose colleagues are fleeing the profession in favor of work that will pay them a living wage.
His compassion for his three principals – and reluctance to aestheticize common people’s suffering – is reflected in his one formal conceit. Except for the tableaux that open and close the film, at no point does his camera ever leave the faces of Plamen, Mila or Krassimir. The forms of their patients, and other characters, are depicted only when they incidentally move through the frame for a second or two.
The effect of this is to place considerable weight on the actors’ capacity to convey emotion – and, whether you enjoy this type of film or not, the acting is a tour de force. Deliberately or not, it also strips away the narrative arc of the story and the certainty of its conclusion.
Putting aside from the seasonal changes reflected in their clothing, Mila and Krassimir look more or less the same in every head shot. The looks of the younger Plamen, on the other hand, change from scene to scene with his hair length, and the change doesn’t look chronological.
These characters struggle to prevent their humanity from dissolving in the morass of moral indifference and apathy that surrounds them. In the end, the jury may still be out.
Ilian Metev’s “Sofia’s Last Ambulance” will screen at Ashrafieh’s Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Wednesday at 8 p.m. For more information call 01-204-080.