Widely regarded as the starting point of the Romanian New Wave, Stuff and Dough (Marfa si ban) is a clear-eyed road movie that's also just as comfortable teasing its genre elements as its politics when the opportunities arise. The film drips with immediacy as director Cristi Puiu opts for tight, handheld camera work that puts the viewer directly inside his movie. At no point can we escape from where Puiu places us. Indeed, part of the joy in watching this movie comes from actively riding alongside three characters who are, essentially, on a four-hour trip running drugs.
If that's too much of a dismissal of a film that plays like it's intentionally steeped in distraction then rest assured that Puiu and his co-writer Razvan Radulescu offer up plenty of surprises along the way. We're introduced early on to Ovidiu (Alexandru Papadopol), who seems to be doing odd jobs for the brusquely mysterious Marcel Ivanov (Razvan Vasilescu). Ovidiu is currently tasked with driving a bag to Bucharest in exchange for a couple thousand bucks - half now, half when the job is done. He's to go alone and arrive by two in the afternoon. His family, who operate a little kiosk store and have run out of beer, want Ovidiu to pick up several things for their business while he's in the city. Ovidiu will disobey Ivanov by enlisting his friend Vali (Dragos Bucur) to go along with him. Vali, in turn, will disobey Ovidiu by bringing along his new girl Betty (Ioana Flora). These characters struggle mightily with obeying any sense of honor or protocol.
The bulk of the picture takes place during this roughly four-hour journey between the more rural Constanta and Bucharest, inside a van occupied by Ovidiu, Vali and Betty. The conversation is never less than interesting, particularly when Vali expresses the surprise one of his friends had upon returning from the United States without ever hearing a gunshot. This global perception is a fascinating insight, circa pre-9/11 2001. It's during this portion, too, that any comparisons to Hitchcock or other suspense-minded directors/films come into play. Puiu manages to conjure up ideas of what could happen by introducing a rather menacing red SUV that follows our protagonists down the road. It's a lead-up to baseball bats breaking glass amid strange and unexplained circumstances. If we don't find out exactly what these guys are after or why they're on the trail then it's almost for the better. The red SUV becomes something of an existential antagonist, disrupting the plot to its advantage.
As road movies go, Stuff and Dough has a fairly unique perspective to share. There are several things at play here but they're conveyed almost casually. Sure we're working with a time deadline but the guy they're going to meet knows they'll be late so it's all cool. And yeah some guys were tailing the van earlier and causing trouble but they're maybe long gone by now so it's probably fine. Again, it's a loose adherence to rules and expectations that pervades the picture's mindset. And yet, the truth of the matter is that we're pretty much dealing with low-level drug runners of some sort. That bag is full of "medicine" which is to be delivered to a super shady guy surrounded by goons.
At its heart, then, Stuff and Dough is kind of in the film noir vein. If you remove the Romanian political elements - not an easy task, to be sure - then you're left with three disparate friends/acquaintances inside a vehicle being threatened by unknown enemies as they must deliver illegal drugs by a specific deadline. That's textbook dark cinema. Mood-wise, Puiu never really quite goes there, but the potential remains. The director instead seems more concerned with a quiet absurdity lingering in the background. In tone, it's more Jarmusch or Kusturica than the tropes of film noir. The mood is dry, straightforward, and lacking in melodrama or angst.
It's almost strange that director Cristi Puiu followed up this ninety-minute exercise built inside a confined space and singular atmosphere with key Romanian New Wave epics The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Aurora - totaling five and a half hours of dark, grueling reminders of the depths of humanity. It all makes Stuff and Dough feel like a rather odd choice to kick off this particular filmic movement, and yet the elements - in tone and quietly obvious political focus - shine through if you pay close enough attention. Regardless, too, of what is or is not here, the key thing that sticks most persuasively in Stuff and Dough is the filmmaking. While these characters and their situation hold our interest, it's really the means and methods of navigating through it all that elevates what we're seeing. As such, the importance of the film as both the beginning of a movement and a most noteworthy filmmaker's body of work transcends the mere nuts and bolts of what's on the screen.
Second Run DVD continues its output of bringing novel and neglected international cinema to the UK with this release of Cristi Puiu's first feature onto standard definition disc. It's spine number 108 in the label's line. It isn't region-coded.
The dual-layered disc contains a fine high-definition transfer of the film, approved by the director. It's in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions. Without any visible damage on display, the picture looks excellent and shows great detail.
Audio is provided via a two-channel Romanian stereo track with optional English subtitles. Sounds and effects are rendered well and without struggle. Everything comes through clearly. Damage to the audio is a non-issue.
Extra features are quite generous and begin with a nifty conversation between director Cristi Puiu and Second Run DVD founder Mehelli Modi. Conducted in April of this year, this interview gives the director an opportunity to discuss his approach to cinema as well as a few more specific ideas behind this particular film. Puiu's short "Coffee and Cigarettes" from 2004 can also be found on the disc.
The signature Second Run booklet included here has an essay on the film by Carmen Gray that also touches on the director's follow-ups. The 12-page insert additionally features credits and stills alongside the written piece.