The “stuff” in Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough is a satchel full of prescription drugs that must be hand-carried to Bucharest from the city of Constanta. The “dough” is the 2,000 lei promised to Ovidiu (Alexandru Papadopol)—a skinny, slightly goofy teenager with Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden posters on his bedroom walls—if he agrees to handle the delivery for a certain Mr. Marcel (Razvan Vasilescu), whose forced avuncular demeanor fails to belie the tell-tale signs of small-time gangsterism. The place is Romania, just over a decade after the fall of Ceausescu, and though the market is now free (everyone in the film is buying or selling something), the goods retain a decidedly blackish tint.
Puiu’s first feature-length film, made when the director was 34, Stuff and Dough makes its belated arrival in American theaters this week, three years after Puiu’s Cannes-lauded triumph, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a nearly three-hour black comedy about a dying man’s last night on earth. Where Lazarescu was old and long, Stuff and Dough is young and short (clocking in at just 90 minutes). But both films are travelogues of a sort—one confined to the back of an ambulance, the other to a cargo van—in which you can sense Puiu, who moved to Switzerland shortly after the 1989 revolution and returned to Romania in the late 1990s, is sorting out his relationship to a country he doesn’t fully recognize, while that country does the same.
Against his patron’s wishes, Ovidiu invites his slacker friend Vali (Dragos Bucur) along for the ride, who in turn brings his apathetic girlfriend Bety (Ioana Flora). This threesome then takes to the highway, and what follows has an easy, open ebb and flow that reminds you why Puiu, who originally sought to become a painter, has cited a chance viewing of Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law as a key event in his decision to pursue filmmaking. (“When I watched [Jarmusch’s] film, I liked very much the quality of the black-and-white and the nothingness contained in the film—the emptiness,” he told this critic in a 2006 interview.) Here, the images are in color, but the nothingness is equally acute, as the conversation ranges discursively over such topics as the composition of highway asphalt, a man who once crashed his car into a house and left it there, and an old Romanian band whose members all dressed like Frank Sinatra. (The dialogue, written by Puiu and Lazarescu co-screenwriter Razvan Radulescu, has a sharp ear for the way young people tease, goad, and challenge each another.)
Inevitably, detours arise, whether cavernous potholes or the menacing dudes who run Ovidiu off the road with their jeep and then come out swinging. Mostly, though, Puiu seems content to embrace the dynamism of youth and possibility; if Lazarescu was a movie of dead ends, Stuff and Dough is one, quite literally, of open roads.
Nothing weighs heavy here, but if Stuff and Dough has a “big idea,” it’s about a post-Communist nation taking its first baby steps toward capitalism. Lacking the hustle required to be a mafioso’s full-time errand boy, Ovidiu sees his work for Mr. Marcel as a necessary evil on the way to opening up a sundries stall like the one his parents (played by Constantin Draganescu and Luminita Gheorghiu, who was the attendant nurse in Lazarescu) operate out of the back of their house. When he has his own shop, Ovidiu hopes aloud, he might even have a full-sized freezer instead of a small refrigeration box. So a boy can dream, provided he remembers that freedom, quite literally, comes with a price.