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By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  October 1, 2007

Puiu’s STUFF AND DOUGH (2001) is typical, simultaneously lean and distracted, jumping into the back seat when a twentysomething punk accepts a dubious errand (deliver a package to a house in Bucharest without knowing or caring what’s in it) from his neighborhood’s amoral mini-oligarch (Vasilescu, a little grayer but no less sharp). He enlists a mouthy friend’s company, and they embark into a larger criminal story, of which we, and they, glimpse only the dangerous fringe details. It’s soon clear they’re being followed, but for the most part they talk to kill the time (we never abandon the anxiety as they seem to) before half-screwing up the agenda and returning home to a fraction of the fortune they’d anticipated. It’s all rhythm and time and experience, a road movie so stripped down that there’s almost nothing left except the looming off-road narrative we never fully grasp.

Puiu’s THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005) is another kind of road movie, an odyssey of modern bureaucratic agony that’s Kafka-esque in its shape but painfully particular in its details. Already lauded last year — when it was sold as an outright comedy, an assertion that must’ve stupefied casual viewers — Puiu’s long film is less a plotted entertainment than an ordeal by realism. As our expiring Romanian nowhere man is escorted from one Bucharest hospital and disinterested doctor to another by his Virgil (a middle-aged EMT played with acidic sympathy by Luminata Gheorghiu), Puiu dallies in the exhausted night spaces, as if chiding us for thinking we have something better to do than watch this luckless old bastard’s body shut down in an uncaring modern economy. He’s right, of course, but the length (154 minutes) and the deliberate meandering encourage us to grow impatient, and then harbor guilt, and then refocus, and so on. It’s a movie about empathy, and the modern lack thereof, in the viewer as well as the characters.

Longer still, Nemescu’s CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ (2007) is a more traditional Eastern European social farce, a kind of my-sour-little-village picaresque centered on a destitute village in the muddy Carpathian basin during the Kosovo war — the only sign of which in these self-centered lives is a NATO train carrying US Marines and munitions, which the town happily waylays, sniffing for profit. As Nemescu’s title says, America is both the promised land and the object of socio-economic derision (“Fuck Bill Clinton!” is the crowning moment of defiance), personified by Armand Assante as a get-it-done officer faced with the recalcitrance and carefree self-service of the Romanian trod-upon. Razvan Vasilescu, again, is the catalyst for the chaos, which mixes in striking workers and defensive bureaucrats but ultimately focuses on village girls looking for handsome American husbands and a one-way ticket out of Dodge. Climaxing with the carnage of a heartbreaking riot, Nemescu’s epic comedy leaves nothing out — its own irony, because it’s an unfinished film, left dangling after its director’s demise. See it now before Harvey Weinstein buys it and takes out the scissors.

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