It wasn’t until Cristi Puiu’s breakthrough second feature The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu, 2005) and a remarkable string of successes by his young Romanian contemporaries that many paid attention to his earlier, smaller film. Today, Stuff and Dough (Marfa și banii, 2001) is credited with kick-starting an entire national film movement: the so-called New Romanian Cinema (or Romanian New Wave), a predominantly realist cinema grounded in the everyday, often laced with black humour and which frequently takes the 1989 Revolution as its key contextual reference point. As with any informal movement which is later assigned a label by critics there remains disagreement as to what the New Romanian Cinema is and isn’t, and trying to pinpoint it risks reducing it to a rigid checklist of features (Puiu himself categorically denied the existence of a “new wave”1). Not up for contention, however, is Puiu’s position at the heart of the resurgent energy and interest in his nation’s cinema, nor that the group of films and filmmakers with which he has been placed is one of the most significant of the early 21st century.
Stuff and Dough begins with middle-aged gangster Marcel Ivanov (Răzvan Vasilescu, equally charming, banal and menacing) visiting Ovidiu (Alexandru Papadopol), an unemployed young man living with his parents in Constanta. Although they’re busy at work in the small kiosk adjoining their apartment, Ovidiu’s parents invite “Mr. Marcel” into their home like a dear friend and he quickly makes himself comfortable, waking Ovidiu in his room and taking a seat next to him on the bed. Marcel assigns him a job: deliver a bag of “medical substances” to an address in Bucharest by 2pm for a suspiciously large fee of $2000USD. He’s meticulous in his instructions – “don’t stop, don’t buy soda, and don’t pick up any hitchhikers” – and even makes Ovidiu write them out, step by step, just to be sure. It’s a pedantic and patronising measure but the job is clearly one that Ovidiu must get right. Marcel leaves the room, Ovidiu waves goodbye and shuts the door, and – at the precise moment where the figurative stopwatch would start ticking in countless films – slides back into bed.
This moment is more than a mere gag highlighting Ovidiu’s slacker nature (there’ll be plenty more opportunities to drive that fact home). It reveals the protagonist’s profoundly confused set of priorities and, in turn, complicates the way in which the viewer might respond to the reality represented in the rest of the narrative. It’s one of the only instances in the film that Ovidiu shows any real urgency and it’s completely mistimed and misdirected – he hurries back into bed once he thinks the coast is clear, to try and steal what would amount to no more than a few extra minutes’ rest (he’s promptly caught by Marcel and reprimanded). If Ovidiu can’t be motivated into action by a gangster with unambiguous orders, or by a well-paying and seemingly straightforward job that would help him attain the independence that he desires, then what will?
It will be the first of Ovidiu’s many baffling decisions. As soon as Marcel leaves for the second time, shaking his head in disbelief, Ovidiu violates a direct order not to tell anyone about the mission by inviting along his best friend Vali (Dragoș Bucur), who brings with him his new girlfriend Bety (Ioana Flora). Once they hit the road, they’re pursued and harassed by an ominous red jeep but their eventual delays are largely due to their own poor choices (stopping to smoke or to buy soda, for example). Needless to say, the trio arrive late at their destination where nobody answers the door; what would prompt dread in most characters prompts instead a shopping expedition to a nearby market. It will take some grisly murders – Marcel comes good as a dangerous gangster after all – for Ovidiu to be snapped out of his stupor and realise his predicament.
Throughout the journey to Bucharest, Puiu’s handheld camera is effectively the fourth passenger in the van as it pans between the characters from the same position, seeing and hearing everything they see and hear and nothing they don’t. But what it mainly observes – occasional brushes with the pursuers and police notwithstanding – are quotidian details of little narrative importance. Stuff and Dough is a rather pure road movie in that the van barely leaves the road and the camera barely leaves the van. It’s also pure in the sense that it faithfully documents the tedium that comes with such a trip: inconsequential conversations, detours and delays, dull and repetitive scenery, the lanes clogged with traffic. In the end, relatively little happens, and the generic traits that the film initially seems to latch onto are kept well at bay.
For most of the film the camera is also sharing Bety’s view from the backseat as she watches and listens to her two male companions in the front, excluded from most of their inane banter (a fair portion of the trip is spent looking at the sides and backs of their heads). This appears to be a man’s world – of stupid men, arrogant and impatient men, men whose horizons are so limited that they may already be pressing against them without their knowing. Is Puiu siding with Bety, and are these men the objects of critique? Not exactly: Bety turns out to be as clueless and ignorant as the rest, perhaps more so. And what about Ovidiu’s parents who seem aware of the nature of their son’s job but remain unperturbed, and who take the opportunity to ask him to pick up supplies for the kiosk while he’s on the road? This is the dark, sad and occasionally funny reality that Puiu reveals: an off-kilter world where crime, work and everyday life are enmeshed, where the promise of capitalism has delivered aimless youth and half-empty shop shelves, and where the characters’ moral compasses seem not to be working as they should.
Who are these people, and what is this place? Alongside his peers, Puiu continues to ask this question in his films, which have become wider in scope, longer in duration and higher in ambition. First, there was Stuff and Dough: a small and unassuming film which hints a great deal about a small and unassuming nation at a point in history. At the turn of the century, a little over a decade after Ceaușescu’s fall, Romania chugs along like the trio’s van. But where to?
Stuff and Dough (Marfa și banii 2001 Romania 90 mins)
Prod Co: Mandragora Prod: Cristi Puiu Dir: Cristi Puiu Scr: Cristi Puiu & Răzvan Rădulescu Phot: Silviu Stavilã Ed: Ines Barbu & Nita Chivulescu Prod Des: Andrea Hasnas
Cast: Alexandru Papadopol, Dragoș Bucur, Ioana Flora, Luminița Gheorghiu, Răzvan Vasilescu, Doru Ana, Costică Drăgănescu
- Scott, A.O. “New Wave on the Black Sea.” The New York Times Magazine,20 January 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/magazine/20Romanian-t.html ↩