Cristi Puiu’s Un Certain Regard-winning sophomore feature The Death of Mr Lazarescu was the film that catapulted what has come to be known as the Romanian New Wave into the international spotlight in 2005. However, the movement – which has introduced the likes of Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean, Calin Peter Netzer, and Corneliu Porumboiu among others – is generally considered to have started with Puiu’s debut five years early, Stuff and Dough. It’s like a blend of a buddy road movie and Spielberg’s Duel shot a typically rough-and-ready social realist style and tinged with black humour at the grim realities of life.
When speaking about his films, Puiu often distances himself from social statements preferring to address his considerations of character and the ethical questions his poses to and about them. This is certainly the focus of Stuff and Dough, in which his slacker protagonist Ovidiu (Alexandry Papadopol) agrees to courier some black-market medicine to Bucharest for a local gangster-type (Razvan Vasilescu). What begins as a way to get some quick money for him and his co-pilot, Vali (Dragos Bucur) ends up being a far more dangerous proposition. Ovidiu’s own ambivalence towards – and even buy-in to – the rife corruption of post-Ceausescu Romania is challenged and he struggles with he and Vali’s role in increasingly unsettling events. Their part may have been played unwittingly, but Puiu refuses to let them off the hook, instead conscience is buried beneath self-preservation – morality seems indiscernible in the gloom of a downward spiral. Such gloom is also evident in the social commentary which frames the action.
Just as the Kafka-esque nightmare of The Death of Mr Lazarescu has political connotations, so much of the periphery in Stuff and Dough does as well. Silviu Stavila’s camera spends much of the film at a quietly observational distance, or eavesdropping on conversation in the backseat of Ovidiu’s beat-up old jalopy but Puiu and Razvan Radulescu’s excellent screenplay touches on numerous elements of modern day Romania in passing, or by weaving them deftly into the escalating tension of the crime caper narrative. From the economic necessity of Ovidiu’s family opening a shop in the front window of their cramped apartment, to discussions about pot-holed roads, the availability of medical care and police corruption.
These are the kinds of themes that would be returned to in the coming years to mark out the films of the Romanian New Wave. In addition to these, the screenplay also manages to balance the conflicting nature of the script which manages to be both exhilarating and mundane; funny and chilling; bleak and hopeful, and bleak again. Stuff and Dough is both about the choices that people make, and the ones which are outside their control and lays a suitable decrepit foundation for the masterpieces that were to follow.
Stuff and Dough is now available from Second Run DVD.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson