Judging by his first feature, a leading light of the Romanian New Wave got off to a slow if promising start. Made in 2001, Stuff and Dough foreshadows the spare, realistic style Cristi Puiu used to such powerful effect in his acclaimed 2006 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It also brings to mind Cristian Mungiu’s transfixing 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. These associations partly explain its belated, very limited release stateside, but it lacks the emotional and social revelation of the later two movies.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu chronicled a 62-year-old man on his frustrating, harrowing and ultimately heartbreaking odyssey through the country’s bureaucratic health care system. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days watched as a college student arranges a back-street abortion for her roommate in 1987 during the Ceausescu regime. Stuff and Dough follows a young man in his early twenties on a four-hour ride in a sluggish van between the town of Constanta and Bucharest. Ovidiu (Alexandru Papdopol) is accompanied by his pal Vali (Dragos Bucur) and Vali’s recently acquired girlfriend Bety (Iona Flora). Their errand is not inconsequential; in fact, it’s potentially quite dangerous and eventful. At the behest of his neighborhood crime boss (Razvan Vasilescu), Ovidiu must deliver a satchel full of medicine to a certain address. The courier job pays well, and Ovidiu hopes to use the money to start his own business. His mother, who sells food and sundries from a kiosk attached to their apartment, wants him to pick up supplies on the journey, which is bookended by two well-observed scenes in the apartment.
The road-trip tedium is broken by idle chatter and a few stops. There’s a trail of wry, understated humor and a sense of tension bordering on dread, mostly courtesy of the red jeep following them. Like Lazarescu, Stuff and Dough has a verite feel, as though it’s happening in real time. The cinematography is more a tribute to the flexibility of the camera operator than a stylistic statement, however. Ovidiu is being tested and so is the audience’s appetite for realism. The details don’t add up to much on a character level or shed light on how commercial survival and quotidian concerns drive choices in a society in flux, which means any society at any given time. The idea that chance and fate are knocking heads remains underdeveloped. Thanks in part to the performances, there’s no doubting the scenario is an authentic slice-of-life that accurately communicates a generation’s restlessness, yet you can’t help thinking it could be set anywhere in Eastern Europe. Cristi Puiu and his writing collaborator Razvan Radulescu (who consulted on the screenplay for 4 Months ) appear to have learned that, while not separable, content is as important as form.
Anyone prone to carsickness should bypass Stuff and Dough, unless they have an unquenchable desire to understand Romanian society or a keen interest in the career development of one of its best filmmakers.
Cast: Alexandru Papdopol, Dragos Bucur, Iona Flora, Luminita Gheorghiu, Razvan Vasilescu, Dora Ana and Constantin Draganescu
Director/Producer: Cristi Puiu
Screenwriters: Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu
Genre: Drama; Romanian-language, subtitled
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: April 23 ltd.