Sofia's Last Ambulance (Poslednata lineika na Sofia) Review
Bulgaria's capital has, according to the back cover of this DVD release, over a million people and yet just thirteen ambulances. The problems endemic to such a situation are inescapable for a city like Sofia. From the sheer logistical concerns to the toll it must take on the medical professionals inside the vehicles day in and day out, the crunch seems obvious. Without commenting directly on any sense of societal ruin, the 2012 documentary Sofia's Last Ambulance (Poslednata lineika na Sofia) uses the intensity of the situation as a backdrop for the up-close experiences of a three-member crew navigating the often tumultuous streets.
We're immediately introduced to the ambulance's driver, nurse and doctor in the film, and we very rarely become separated from them. The majority of the picture focuses directly on one of the three, with a dashboard camera pointing right at each. Even when something of note is happening, whether it's the initial scene of an unconscious man struggling to breathe or an undoubtedly gruesome display of a decaying corpse, it's the reactions from the team that we see rather than the more obvious "action" taking place in their presence. An added sense of humanity comes along with zeroing in so heavily on the facial expressions and almost meditative looks shown from these three.
The doctor, Krassi, takes on a steady yet enigmatic quality - accented by years of experience and burdened by the too-familiar realities of a failing system. Nurse Mila is more emotional, louder. Their driver Plamen would seem to be the less invested of the three, the sole member who isn't a medical professional, yet he too is quick to express frustration after another vehicle causes the ambulance to get into a traffic accident. He yells to the other driver that sometimes he too drives a taxi and this cabbie's behavior is making them all look bad. Throughout, again, we're shown only the team we've gotten to know quite well by this point. Sounds enter but are not accounted for via image.
The cumulative effect of all of this is substantially more withholding than immersive, as one might imagine. There's never a sense of the viewer being right there alongside these people. It amounts to a very controlled, indeed tightly edited, portrayal that seems to take place over a short timespan but actually was cobbled together using footage from dozens of sessions over a couple of years. Cinematically, there's no harm in employing such a technique and it probably makes for a better film. The tension is certainly increased by having one call come in after another, even against such a brief (77 minutes) running time.
Something I'll posit about Sofia's Last Ambulance, which was directed by Ilian Metev and earned the France 4 Visionary Award at the Cannes Film Festival, is that it works remarkably well on a number of levels. In this regard, it's similar to and consistent with so much of the Second Run catalog. Metev withholds narration, music and even screens of textual background. There's an extremely disciplined use of spareness at work here. So it functions to an impressive extent as a strict human interest nonfiction film. But the implied critique of the situation which has resulted in the things seen on screen is nearly unavoidable. No one watching is going to exit with the belief that the system shown here is in perfect working order. It's clearly broken, and calling attention to that in such a persuasive way is a bold step forward.
Second Run DVD has released Sofia's Last Ambulance onto DVD in the UK. The PAL disc is region-free and dual-layered. Though cover art theoretically should affect no significant aspect of a review it's still worth mentioning how striking the chosen design here is.
Image quality for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio progressive transfer is strong. It looks better when more light exists in the frame, with some of the darker scenes appearing comparatively murky, but the picture on the whole is good. There are no instances of damage here.
Audio comes in the form of a Bulgarian 2.0 track. It's quite loud, with limitations owing to how it was recorded but still the spoken words still sound clean and clear. English subtitles are optional.
The nice collection of special features begins with a conversation between the British sound recordist Tom Kirk and director Ilian Metev. It's an illuminating addendum to the film, with Metev getting into some of his motivations and ideas for making it. Also on the disc is his short film "Goleshovo" from 2008, an affectionate look at a few of the remaining residents in a 59-person Bulgarian town.
An included 12-page booklet contains some statements from editor Betina Ip that go far in painting a deeper portrait of what's on the disc. Also present are a couple of pages with interview answers from Metev, taken at the time of the film's 2012 screening in Cannes.
All in all, a quite notable release of a film that seemed unlikely to get this kind of even modest attention in the English language home entertainment market but one which certainly deserves it.