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 — if he agrees to handle the delivery for a certain Mr. Marcel (Razvan Vasilescu), whose avuncular demeanor fails to belie the telltale signs of smalltime gangsterism. The place is Romania, just more than a decade after the fall of Ceausescu, and though the market is now free, 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 Los Angeles 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, sorting out his relationship to a country he doesn’t fully recognize.
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). 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 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.) Detours inevitably 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. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; Sat., June 7, 8 p.m. www.silentmovietheatre.com.)