Because I can't decide whether unpromising description or rave assessment is a more useful introduction to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, here's both: In his extraordinary second feature film, Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu devotes some two and a half hours to the mortal decline of a decrepit sixtysomething man who calls an ambulance complaining of a headache and stomachache. And had the drama (which won a major prize at Cannes last year) been released in 2005, it would have made the top 3 of my top 10 list Mr. Lazarescu is that rich and riveting a film of universal small human moments and big-system failure. A former painter, Puiu has cited the influence of the great French teller of moral tales, Eric Rohmer, in his approach to storytelling. But a lot of Frederick Wiseman's grimmer, real-time, vérité style is also at play; a kind of rigorous compassion hovers over the ever-widening mess. The title patient (well-known Romanian actor Ion Fiscuteanu, heading a superb cast portraying astonishingly real neighbors, doctors, hospital staffers, and emergency technicians) is a widowed drinker in a rotting apartment with only cats for company. Yet as his condition worsens, and his case is bounced from hospital to hospital, Mr. Lazarescu makes clear, with infinite tenderness, that we're all in this condition of human frailty together.