Faces convey all that auds need to know in tyro helmer Ilian Metev’s rigidly constructed and deeply human docu “Sofia’s Last Ambulance.” The title refers not to a woman but to Bulgaria’s capital, reduced to a mere 13 ambulances due to rampant corruption and severe underfunding. Metev’s approach is cinematic rather than didactic, keeping his always respectful camera tightly held on three subjects whose commitment and exhaustion register in equal amounts. Enthusiastic attention from fests won’t expire anytime soon.
Metev followed a couple of medics and their driver for two years, apparently fixing the camera to the dashboard to study the three in various stages of relaxation, tension, relief and concern. Scenes in the back of the ambulance, and on-call throughout the city, remain focused on the trio rather than on their cases, maintaining patients’ privacy and avoiding the sensational or gruesome.
Work conditions are bad enough considering the scandalous paucity of ambulances serving a city of approximately 2 million. In addition, dispatchers are few and overworked, and roads are so riddled with potholes that anyone inside the vehicle exits with their kishkas in knots. Though the three workers here are visibly on the brink of burnout, somehow their humanity keeps them going forward.
Riding shotgun in the middle is medic Mila Mikhailova, the most outgoing of the group, naturally peppering her gurney-side manner with “honeys” and “my dears.” Stone-faced Dr. Krassimir Yordanov has the window seat, and Plamen Slavkov is at the wheel. Metev offers no personal details, and little of their lives outside the ambulance is revealed in conversation: the docu’s focus is as fixed as the helmer’s passively observational camera.
What comes through is the trio’s heroic soldiering on in the face of a practically nonexistent infrastructure (this is the nonfiction version of Luminita Gheorghiu and Gabriel Spahiu in “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”). Poor communication, inaccurate directions from dispatchers, horrendous road conditions and obstreperous patients are only some of the problems they face daily, on top of the knowledge that they’ll never be able to properly attend to a large portion of the emergency cases.
Metev has the kind of appreciation for faces seen in the photos of Edward S. Curtis, and it’s fascinating to scrutinize creases, expressions and eyes that gaze ahead with silent exasperation. Though there’s no sense of chronology, editing follows a subtle progression from hopeful to enervated, leaving viewers wondering how much longer these three can keep doing their work before cracking up.