Watching a pensioner vomit blood into his slippers might not be everyone's idea of a Friday night at the flicks, but stay with The Death Of Mr Lazarescu. Allow Cristi Puiu's Bucharest-set odyssey to shuffle its way through the entire two-and-a-half hours of its magisterially mournful funeral parade and you'll be rewarded with the sight of our eponymous zero pissing, then shitting, his pants.
Which is a facetious way of admitting that Lazarescu is tough viewing. It is, after all, a film about the final hours of a banal life, shot in suitably lifeless colours and comprised entirely of interiors (the old man's cramped flat, an ambulance, hospitals). Its camera is handheld but resolutely unflustered, its pacing determinedly languid despite the (almost) real-time structure, and its performances naturalistic and sombre rather than charismatic: any star wattage here is of the five-watt-bulb-wreathed-in-cobwebs variety.
Which makes Lazarescu the anti-ER (written by Mike Leigh, directed by John Cassavetes, edited by Jim Jarmusch...), its numb, lethargic doctors treating the semi-comatose Lazarescu with disinterest, even contempt. Overworked and underpaid, the staff have neither the time nor energy to get excited over a smelly old man who continues to drink despite a history of stomach ulcers.
To some, this might sound like an exercise in screen miserablism - and pretentious miserablism at that, given the glaringly symbolic names of several of its protagonists (Lazarescu, Dante, Dr Anghel). It's not, Puiu saving his film from a death of cheerless, contemptible pomposity by gulping in huge life breaths of warmth and wit, compassion and dignity.
It's this ability to marry welcome humanism to a surgical dissection of the Romanian health service that marks Lazarescu as one to watch. Well, that and the vomit in the slippers...