Dir: Cristi Puiu. Rom.2005. 154mins.

It's got to be one of the hardest sells there is: atwo-and-a-half-hour film about an incontinent old man in Bucharest who is takenill one evening, calls an ambulance, and is shuttled from hospital to hospitalin search of a diagnosis, a scan, and a free bed.

But The Death Of MrLazarescu, a remarkable fly-on-the-wall drama which screened in Cannes' UnCertain Regard sidebar, is oddly compelling, and those who caught the film atthe festival have been talking about it ever since.

Second-time director CristiPuiu - whose Stuff And Dough screened in the Quinzaine in 2002 - has tworeal strengths. One is creating character out of everyday, real-time gesturesand reactions, rather than classic three-act crisis points. The other is histalent for disguising a powerful moral odyssey behind a seeminglyinconsequential, even random sequence of events - like Kieslowski gone Dogme.

It's a festival film,certainly; but adventurous arthouse distributors should take a look at MrLazarescu, which has the potential to become a real word-of-mouth challengefor resilient cineastes.

Dante Remus Lazarescu - togive the film's pensioner-hero the full name which he will repeat over and overto medical staff in the course of the evening - lives alone in a squalidBucharest apartment with three cats. The sink is full of dirty plates, thetelevision is droning on in the background, and Mr Lazarescu has a nastyheadache and keeps throwing up.

He rings for an ambulance,he rings his sister who lives in another town, he knocks on the neighbour'sdoor and asks for some Distomocalm. With his jutting lower lip and hisfractious manner, Mr Lazarescu comes across at first as a grumpy old sod (heeven complains about the old-fashioned ambulance that has been sent to gethim). He drinks too much home-made hooch, despite having been operated on for astomach ulcer, and his confident bandying about of medical and pharmaceuticalterms initially suggests a diagnosis of severe hypochondria.

But two things happen in thecourse of the film: first, we gradually realise that Mr Lazarescu's conditionis serious, even life-threatening; and second, we come to sympathise with thegrumpy old sod, and feel intensely the loneliness of his life, and theindignities to which the socially obsolete are so often subjected.

There are even a few veiledhints at a symbolic apparatus, which may be merely playful: Lazarescu's firstname is Dante, his brother in-law is Virgil (the Roman poet who acted as hisItalian colleague's guide and mentor in The Divine Comedy), and the "Lazarus"element in his surname can hardly be accidental.

Mr Lazarescu's odyssey takesup the next six hours (interviewed for the festival programme, the directorregretted not being able to film the thing in real time). His guardian angel isMioara, the ordinary, middle-aged ambulance service nurse who is hoping for aquiet night, but who ends up sticking with the increasingly incoherent old guyas he is passed on from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, on a night whena serious road accident is filling beds and keeping the A&E staff busy.

Most of these hospitalworkers are not inhumane, just overworked and frazzled, and Puiu elicitssympathy for their plight too - even for the young gum-chewing scanner doctorwho orders frappuccinos while Mr Lazarescu's life ebbs away on the stretcher.This is one of a number of moments of humour that relieve the gloom - thoughthe humour always has a point to make.

Everyone who examines MrLazarescu smells the alcohol on his breath, and this hardens their alreadysceptical attitude - one A&E surgeon at St Spiridon hospital even accuseshim of being a parasite and bringing his troubles on himself. Thealcohol-sniffing routine thus becomes both a running gag and a reflection onthe way easy explanations allow us to withhold our humanity.

Shot with hand-heldcasualness, the film uses available light and local sound in true Dogme style.This documentary directness carries through into the strong performances fromthe troupe of actors, who don't appear to be acting at all.

Puiu has stated that MrLazarescu is the first chapter of a series entitled Six Stories From TheOutskirts Of Bucharest, inspired in part by Eric Rohmer's film cycles, andall relating to one aspect of love - the subject here being love for one'sfellow man. We look forward to part two, and to the chance to see all six backto back one day. It promises to be the ultra-cineaste's version of a StarWars all-nighter.

Prod co

Int'l sales
The Coproduction Office

Exec prod
Alexandru Munteanu

Cristi Puiu
Razvan Radulescu

Oleg Mutu

Prod des
Cristina Barbu

Dana Bunescu

Andreea Paduraru

Main cast
Ioan Fiscuteanu
Lumnita Gheorghiu
Mimi Branescu
Dana Dogaru
Florin Zamfirescu
Mihai Bratila
Monica Barladeanu