But lend a calm eye to detail, and a lot is brewing in this low-budget experiment. Puiu has mentioned a range of inspirations from Romanian playwright of the absurd Eugene Ionesco to American indies in the form of the naturalism and investigative mindset of Cassavetes, and Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, about another bumbling down-on-their-luck crime trio on the run. Roots of the Romanian New Wave are evident in the film’s casual observational realism, which captures with a wry, deadpan feel for the absurd the shabbiness of everyday reality, the arid options of which are inescapable. It’s this sensibility which also gives sting to Coffee and Cigarettes (Un cartu? de Kent ?i un pachet de cafea), Puiu’s 2004 Berlinale-awarded short. It resituates the Jarmusch-style vignette of two men chatting at a table in Bucharest within the cynical lassitude of Romania’s new material opportunism, and is also included in this Second Run release. Stuff and Dough opens on a kiosk in a dusty Constanta yard, run out of a ground-floor apartment. It’s out of cooking oil. This is a vision of half-stocked shelves that appears little changed from the Communist era, and shows that free-market capitalism has not been the cure-all it was cracked up to be. It’s the kind of small, private business that sprang up everywhere after 1989. The woman serving the customers through the window is the mother of young layabout Ovidiu (Alexandru Papadopol). He seizes the chance of a shortcut to make some quick money, in the hope he can buy his own kiosk - the highest ambition his limited horizon allows him to imagine. He’s enlisted by a shady businessman to drive a package of black-market meds to Bucharest and deliver them to an address there, in return for 2,000 US dollars. It’s the first time he’s done such a job, and while not exactly raring to go (his new boss comes to brusquely wake him after he sleeps in) the temptation of easy money hooks him. It’s not such a surprise: as the title spells out, life has been flattened to a crude scrabble for the material basics. Enterprise in this new society is oiled by corruption, and legality is an inconvenient question of relativity. Through their offhand, default disregard for promises or instructions the characters drag themselves into such a spiral of repetition and inevitability the film takes on a sense of persecutory déja vu, just as the shunting of ailing Dante from hospital to hospital in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu becomes a grotesque comic dance of the Kafkaesque. Things go wrong, and somehow, we know it can’t be any other way. This absurdity infuses the ending of Stuff and Dough when, without giving away too much of the plot, we realise along with Ovidiu that triumph over risk and insecurity can only be fleeting. It signifies only the onset with renewed vigour and deepened entrapment of more of the same. Suspense builds not from filmic tricks or spectacle geared toward adrenaline but from the fact we never know more than Ovidiu about what’s in store - a blinkered state governing all in an elliptical universe not open to control or easy interpretation. Is the utter failure of a human capacity to depend on one another in Puiu’s films a social critique of Romania? The hangover from the Ceau?escu days and the struggle to adapt to capitalism in the ‘90s is in their fabric for sure, but they’re occupied with something more. Puiu is a thinker who goes in deep. He’s unsettled by the mysteries of human nature itself, and of death and violence as forces underpinning all behaviour that are as unfathomable as they are indisputable. For him, cinema is not for social commentary so much as a tool for investigating life’s inexplicable, mutinous and alienating strangeness. In the most unsettling scene of Stuff and Dough, Ovidiu is truly rattled when he comes across a police cordon on the way home – beyond it a bloody murder scene now frozen behind the yellow tape, like an ominous still life for contemplation. The delivery job done, he’d no longer felt in personal danger. His friends are asleep, oblivious and innocent in the van. But for him, it’s a moment of unnameable, abject revelation; an initiation into mortality’s random and absolute finality. Life as a youthful game is over.