26 March, 2023
A review of the film Marfă și bani (Stuff and dough), director Cristi Puiu
(source: YouTube, Cinepub)

Being from Craiova, in mid-December last year I attended Tudor Giurgiu’s conference in the foyer of the city’s National Theatre. At one point, the director of the feature De ce eu? argued that Romanian cinema in the first post-communist decade (and the last of the 20th century) was sublime, but utterly lacking. What he meant was that directors and producers were making films with nationalistic fantasies, as were Sergiu Nicolaescu’s early films of this period, or with implausible/never-ending subjects/scenarios. Film festival awards were bypassing local cinema at this time, but times were not good for the culture north of the Danube as a whole: we are at the beginning of the transition and the standard of living is falling, inflation is rising and cinemas built before 1989 are closing one after the other, especially since the number of spectators is shrinking from one year to the next. With most Romanians now thinking about what tomorrow will bring and whether they will have enough money for their daily expenses, going to the cinema was the last thing anyone would have thought of. The disappearance of cinemas is most acute in small towns (the small urban, as Vasile Ernu would say), with less than a hundred thousand inhabitants, which can be seen in the statistics – even on Wikipedia, you can see how a film like Terminus Paradis directed by Lucian Pintilie (the most prominent Romanian director of the 1990s) had, in 1998, less than twenty thousand spectators in Romanian cinemas. As it happens throughout the troubled history, even the ugly phases come to an end.

It’s 2001 and a director like Cristi Puiu releases Stuff and Dough. Suddenly, the landscape of Romanian cinema begins to change and the films released after this point are no longer obsessed with the nationalist past or with annoyingly misogynistic comedies (admittedly, these comedies are still appearing), and even begin to win important awards. Like The Death of Mr Lazarescu, directed by the same Cristi Puiu and awarded the Un Certain Regard at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. What film critics will call the new Romanian wave will dominate Romanian cinema in the 2000s, and Stuff și Dough is the starting point. The Romanian new wave means a realist style, with tight shots like the kitchens of working-class flats and the image of a society full of social upheaval, i.e. poverty and inequality. Which is also evident in this first feature film by Cristi Puiu, in which the family of one of the protagonists, Ovidiu played by Alexandru Papadopol, sells necessities such as oil, juice and chupa chups (a kind of lollipops which have run out and Ovar, as his friend Vali calls him, has to buy more from Bucharest), and this precarious living forces Ovidiu to make a trip to the capital city to carry a bag of medicine for a shady guy. The shady guy seems to be well placed on the economic ladder, as he drives a foreign car, not a common sight in the early 2000s, when the most common car model you could see in a city like Constanta was the Dacia 1310. This seemingly important guy named Ivanov, played by Răzvan Vasilescu (and Răzvan Vasilescu is very menacing in antagonistic roles, especially in underworld roles, but in what role wouldn’t Răzvan Vasilescu be menacing?) offers Ovidiu a bag with six boxes of medicine that he has to transport in four hours to a certain address in Bucharest.

Ovidiu will not go alone, but will be joined by Vali – played by Dragoș Bucur – and his partner Betty (Ioana Flora’s first role). And he’ll really need his pal Vali, as their van will be attacked and followed for a good portion of the way by the occupants of a red SUV. On this occasion, Ovar (sorry, Ovidiu) and Vali have a philosophical discussion about how such attacks and crimes like being attacked and having the windshield of your van smashed by two guys with baseball bats, can’t normally happen in a poor country like Romania, at most it can happen in the States; but Vali thinks that such attacks don’t happen there either, especially since he heard it from a friend, so it must be true.

The film is a road movie, probably the first Romanian film of its kind, which means we can see what the national roads looked like two decades ago. In 2001, the Bucharest-Constanta motorway was not finished, so our heroes will drive through unpaved stretches and bribe the traffic police not to have their van checked. So Cristi Puiu’s film doesn’t hesitate to show the harsh realities of a society that was not yet part of the European Union, or the inflation of the time, when a bottle of oil was bought with a thick stack of banknotes. Just as the viewer can also see the potholed neighborhood roads in a big capital like Bucharest. Arriving at the address and delivering the packages they don’t know what contain, Ovar (I know, Ovidiu) and Vali will discover that they are caught in the position of a mule for a guy they thought was a local businessman, but who turns out to be a dangerous and influential interloper. Răzvan Vasilescu doesn’t even have to play interlopers to be menacing on screen – his stoned voice, scrutinizing gaze and self-assurance are enough to intimidate anyone even if Răzvan Vasilescu were to ask you how much is a can of beans. In other roles we see Luminița Gheorghiu as Ovidiu’s mother, a woman who also does a man’s work to struggle to keep the small family business afloat. Her pale face and unassertive voice show us how much the status of women has been degraded during the capitalist transition, as they are forced to expand their tasks and work day and night until exhaustion. In the meantime, ungrateful sons like Ovar-Ovid want to open their own boutique doing jobs for shady guys they know nothing about. The small family business is another reality of the Romanian transition that now seems like ancient history.

If you want to see how the new Romanian wave started, how Alexandru Papadopol’s acting looked like in his youth and why Răzvan Vasilescu is so menacing in so many roles, but also how Romanian society looked like in a time when there were no malls, no high-speed internet, and manele evolved simultaneously with rap and hip hop music (as Adrian Schiop told us), Stuff and Dough is a film not to be missed.

The film Stuff and Dough with English subtitles

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