Youth, Nomadism, and Claustrophobia in the Argentinian and Romanian New Waves: Stuff and Dough and Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes
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This essay analyzes the initial manifestations of Romanian and Argentianian ‘new waves’: in particular, their distinction from previous filmmaking styles in these countries. Both Stuff and Dough and Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes emphasize an aesthetic and thematic representation of claustrophobia as a reflection of post-totalitarian socio-economic insecurity, manifesting itself through mobility, nomadism, and the difficulties of existence, especially for youths.
A police radio feed accompanies images of police officers making an arrest in a nighttime urban environment and then fades into an Argentinian cumbia tune. People waiting at a bus station, car engines: the frenzied energy of streets at the periphery of Buenos Aires is captured through glimpses of cityscapes from a moving car. Such audiovisual cacophony forms the opening credits of Israel Adrian Caetano and Bruno Stagnaro’s Argentinean film Pizza, birra, faso/ Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes (1998). As music and credits end, two young men jump into a cab and force the driver at gun point to keep driving, while they pressure his client for money. They are Cordoba (Héctor Anglada) and Pablo (Jorge Sesán), two friends who resort to crime and petty theft to supply their everyday necessities. They are part of a group of teenage criminals – along with Megabom (Alejandro Pous), Frula (Walter Diaz) and Sandra (Pamela Jordán) – squatting together in an abandoned house on the peripheries of Buenos Aires. They are tired of the scant possibilities allowed to them through petty criminal behavior and being swindled out of their profits by their cronies. Sandra (Cordoba’s pregnant girlfriend) wants to start a new life in Uruguay. To find the money for the move, Cordoba plans to rob a local nightclub. But his attempt ends in disaster and, by the end of the film, Sandra takes the ferry leaving him behind in Buenos Aires.
A similar narrative of youth living on the margins of society, resorting to delinquent actions to survive in a chaotic post-totalitarian world, is the Romanian film Marfa și banii/ Stuff and Dough (Cristi Puiu, 2001). Ovidiu (Alexandru Papadopol), a young man living in a provincial Romanian city, does some odd-jobs for a local big-shot, Marcel Ivanov (Răzvan Vasilescu). The film begins with Ivanov dropping off a mysterious package, which Ovidiu would have to transport to Bucharest. Ivanov tells him that the package contains medical supplies, but throughout the film it is implied that they are transporting illegal drugs. Despite instructions from Ivanov to go alone, Ovidiu brings along his friend, Vali (Dragoș Bucur), with Vali’s girlfriend Betty (Ioana Flora) as a tag-along passenger. The three set out on the road, unaware of the formative value of their journey, as Ovidiu is thrust into situations that force him to mature. Strangers attack them for no apparent reason, altering their itinerary. When they return to Ovidiu’s home, Ivanov and his henchman are waiting, threatening a reluctant Ovidiu and binding his friend Vali to continue as drug couriers, despite their qualms.
Both films are reflections on contemporary societies in transition from totalitarianism to democracy and capitalist economies, capturing the struggles of marginalized youth in unstable contexts. This article explores the aesthetic and social experience of claustrophobia as dramatized in two films of new cinema movements in Argentina and Romania: Stuff and Dough and Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes. It proposes that the films construct claustrophobia as an experience of post-totalitarian, socio-economic precarity, to be managed through mobility and nomadism. In both films, the characters seek financial and material stability in an unsettled world. In Stuff and Dough, Ovidiu – who owns a small convenience store operating through his family’s ground floor apartment – dreams of making enough money to become independent. On the road to Bucharest, he tells his friend that the money from Ivanov will go towards his funds to buy a booth for his convenience store, and the next step would be for him to move out of his parents’ house. In Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes, Sandra and Cordoba’s condition is even more unstable: they are vagrants, about to be parents, in the slums of Buenos Aires. For both sets of youth, place-making is their dream and their biggest challenge, and they negotiate that yearning in transitional spaces that taunt them with the promise of stability only to become claustrophobic and uninhabitable.
Old Systems and New Aesthetics
There are several points that connect these two films, besides their apparent similarities in theme. They were both precursors to a new national cinema, setting the stage for new approaches in their respective national spaces. Both films received mixed reviews and were not considered successful, neither critically nor commercially, despite attaining modest success on the international film festival circuit. Furthermore, these two films were seen as stark ruptures from the national film styles, themes, schools that preceded their emergence.
The Argentine films of the 1980s and early 1990s could easily compare to the Romanian films of the 1990s. Following decades-long totalitarian rule, the transitional period before these new movements emerged was dominated by abrupt changes to the systems of production and infrastructure. Yet these changes yielded slow adaptations from state-mandated and controlled productions, leading to instabilities of production and distribution. For approximately the first decade of post-totalitarian rule (1983-1995), the output of Argentine cinema focused on destape (“liberating transition period”), which has been described as “psychoanalytic sessions on film” due to their tendency towards addressing social issues of post-totalitarianism in their narratives. Underlining the possibilities of catharsis through film, Joana Page explains that Argentinian cinema of the 1980s and early 1990s focuses on “themes of exile, loss, absence, betrayal, complicity, loneliness, imprisonment, and insanity.” Page further suggests that the often-times allegorical structure of these films is a result of “the profound sense of shattered identity both personal and collective,” dominated by an “experience of fragmentation and dislocation.” In attempting to portray the post-totalitarian Romanian society in transition, Romanian films of the 1990s, notes Doru Pop, are “dominated either by shallow humor and burlesque critique of post-communist society, by crude forms of social (and virtual) abjection or the borrowed genres from Hollywood,” bearing striking similarities to the Argentinean cinema of destape. Such predilection for symbolism and allegory in the Romanian films of the 1990s instilled a desire in the following generation of New Wave filmmakers to distance themselves from a highly stylized and caricaturesque cinema of early post-socialism. As Cristian Mungiu has stated: “I wanted to become a filmmaker as a reaction to that kind of cinema. [...] I felt this way, but I think this whole generation had that feeling. Those movies were badly acted, completely unbelievable, with stupid situations, lots of metaphors.” Instead, the films of the New Wave focus on mundane reality, depicting everyday episodes, in a drive to eschew analogies, allegories, or symbolist readings of a film.
Furthermore, the financial conditions in which these filmmakers work are common to post-totalitarian states, as demonstrated also by descriptions of the situation of Argentinean cinema. “From the aesthetic point of view, the precarious conditions that surround cinema can be considered stimulating”, writes Gonzalo Aguilar in describing the situation of new Argentine cinema. And while, like in Romania’s early post-totalitarian years, “visual experimentation” was characteristic of the films of the 1980s and early 1990s; the new Argentine cinema adopts a “pseudodocumentary approach,” a “more austere and sober representation of the everyday” more reflective of entrenched social and economic troubles.
Stuff and Dough and Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes open up this new aesthetic with their predilection towards realism, small (at times non-existent) budget, and a concentration on the social and psychological aspects of a character’s life, which we see in both the Argentinian and Romanian cinemas of the 2000s.
Physical and Social Mobility
In writing about European art cinema, András Bálint Kovács identifies narratives of wandering in modernist films as an influence on the road movie genre. The purpose of the wandering genre is not to trace the direction and destination of the characters’ journeys, but rather to “explore the protagonist’s world” in the context of a “constantly changing environment.” That is descriptive of the conditions of the two films under discussion in this article, as they both delve into the main characters’ social environment, and their existence in transitory circumstances. In both Stuff and Dough and Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes, the movement is determined by economic conditions and accompanied by a frenetic energy and a sense of desperation, rather than an attitude of discovery otherwise visible in the road movies of the American cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, which Kovács discusses. Gonzalo Aguilar’s concept of “nomadism” is a more apt lens through which to read the two Romanian and Argentinean films. Aguilar defines nomadism as “a contemporary state of permanent movement, passages, and situations of not belonging, along with the dissolution of any instance of permanence.” It is a condition determined not so much by the physical movement of characters, but rather by their social condition. Sedentarism, by contrast, refers to perpetuating a patriarchal structure that “shows the breakdown of homes and of families, the inefficacy of traditional and modern associative ties, and the paralysis of those who insist of perpetuating that order.”  Nomadism, on the other hand, refers to the “absence of a home, the lack of powerful (restrictive and normative) ties of belonging, and a permanent and unpredictable mobility.” The transition from totalitarianism to capitalism in these two films reflects a dichotomy between the patriarchal structure of sedentarism and the nomadism of post-communist globalization. Previous generations (parents and grandparents), living under totalitarian rule, were more accustomed to sedentarism, as their lives were centered in their homes. On the other hand, for the younger generations the home is only a stop-over, and their lives, existing in a continuous nomadism, take place in the car or on the streets.
Gonzalo Aguilar, in his analysis of Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes, describes “spaces of precariousness” to discuss the nomadism represented in films in which characters create “tactics of pure survival in a nomadism that threatens traditional forms of modern society.” This results in the marginal condition of the individual produced by capitalism. Aguilar’s concept of nomadism is similar to Zygmunt Bauman’s description of the “vagabond” in that they both describe the condition of uprooted and transient individuals, determined by their socio-economic position in a “liquid modernity” (Bauman), or a post-totalitarian country (Aguilar). The difference between “vagabond” and “nomad,” as they are used here, results from their differing approaches to objectives, while the nomad has a specific purpose of financial prosperity and social stability, the vagabond moves through space with “no set destination,” nor does he have any ambitions or objectives to follow.
Applying the concept of nomadism to Romanian films might seem incongruous at first. Despite the fact that the liberalization of cross-border movement in post-communism translated into a focus on cinematic narratives of migration, Lucian Georgescu insists that Romanian identity predominantly manifests characteristics of deep-set roots, rather than an identity of global dispersion. Georgescu identifies Stuff and Dough as an exceptional Romanian film in its emphasis on movement. Both Stuff and Dough and Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes share characteristics of the road movie genre. As Sarah Redshaw observes in her study of driving as a cultural practice, road movies thematize “fantasy” and “escape” and are “generally about freedom and mobility.” However, in both films addressed here, the movement of characters, rather than signifying freedom, represents the claustrophobia of the characters’ social situation. Able to physically move around and travel geographically, the characters are unable to fit into society and exist on the margins of social life.
Social Dynamics within the Automobile
Stuff and Dough is so clearly a road film that Dominique Nasta suggests the alternative title, “Three for the Road.” Road films are indelibly connected with the automobile’s promise of freedom. According to Sarah Redshaw, the road journey is “typically a journey for men and their machines into a realm where anything can happen, where anomie and anarchy threaten and the darker side of human behaviour can emerge.” As observed by Ron Eyerman and Orvar Löfgren, road movies are dominated by masculinity, in which the female character has a supporting role, and being on the road “becomes a ritual of manhood, a way of proving yourself.” The predominance of male protagonists in road films stems from its provenance as a product of the western genre. Road movie tropes are reminiscent of the frontier, an “overwhelmingly virile space, in which masculinity is coupled with mobility, exploration, self-determination, conquest and violence.” Furthermore, the frontier is represented as a space that is devoid of social order and lacks a stable home life, which is similar to Gonzalo Aguilar’s description of nomadism.
In the films discussed here, the characters’ search for a better future devolves into a despondency manifesting itself in hopelessness and delinquency. The youth – with low prospects towards employment – undertake petty, generally illicit actions in order to gain capital in hopes of a better life. These actions push them towards a marginalized position within society, where they consort with gangster-like figures and are forced to constantly evaluate and reposition themselves in order to survive; and they cannot escape their conditions, except through violent outbursts.
Stuff and Dough covers the events of one day, focusing on the journey between Constanta and Bucharest, undertaken for the most part by car. The car, especially for youths, is the mark of social status, identity, and in most cases either the source of income or a means of facilitating some form of employment, as suggested by sociologist Amy L. Best in her study of American youth and their connections and dependence on cars. The car is a symbolic object of the compression of space and time; Amy Best describes the functions of the car as “key symbols of vertical and horizontal mobility, since they provide us with the means to move across place and space in ways that have dramatically altered our relationship to time.”  The car allows these characters to roam the country, removing the limits of locality, but it also signifies their restricted condition from which they cannot escape. Furthermore, in many cases, it represents a sign of social and financial status; Ovidiu’s broken-down, noisy van is an encompassing definition of his economic dependency.
The enclosed space of the car in Stuff and Dough structures the relationships between the three youngsters – Ovidiu, Vali and Betty – manifesting itself in relations of power and the social psychology of “front and back seat” and “of taking the wheel or staying behind.” At the beginning of the journey, the space of the car is divided based on gender, with Ovidiu and Vali sitting in front, and Betty assigned to the backseat. This order is disturbed when they get attacked by strangers in a red jeep. The three travelers rearrange their positions when Betty crawls into the front seat as well, thus eliminating the hierarchy among them to present a united front against their attackers. Ovidiu replaces Vali at the steering wheel, assumes the position of the leader in their group, and takes control of the situation. This structuring, at a point of crisis, is reversed when they are no longer in danger, and the social dynamics within the car revert to their earlier positions, with Betty (as a tag-along passenger) being reassigned to the backseat while Ovidiu and Vali take turns as drivers. Their dynamic changes again when Ovidiu and Vali get into an argument over the fact that Betty left the car unattended while the two young men were in a market; therefore, on the return journey, Vali sits in the backseat with Betty, isolating Ovidiu in front. Similar dynamics can be observed in Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes. One night, as Cordoba and his group of misfits travel in the car of a fellow crook with whom they are temporarily associated, their position within the car determines their authority over the group, as the driver dictates to all of them while the front seat passenger’s voice is listened to more than that of the young men in the backseat. While the car is free to roam the roads and escape the constrictions of space, these two films also emphasize the claustrophobia of the characters’ constrained existence. The dichotomy embodied in the road, between the freedom of geographical movement and the distress of the characters’ social positions, is emphasized in the precariousness of their circumstances and the fear of what lies beyond the confines of the car. Unlike the dependency on cars (described by Amy Best) – which are seen as vehicles that compress space and time, signifying the mobility afforded its owners – in these films the car represents the dangerous and vulnerable position of the passengers.
However, the automobile also represents a space of socialization, as the three friends in Stuff and Dough exchange funny tales and tease each other on the drive to Bucharest. In Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes that space-sharing camaraderie is represented by the nighttime urban square, where the group gathers to take stock of their day and hang out. It is these environments, the shabby car and the nighttime city, that emphasize the precarity of these characters’ condition. Unlike the image of the modernist flâneur – in Walter Benjamin’s concept, a stroller and observer of city life – the characters in these two films move through their respective cities driven by need, rather than enjoyment. Determined by economic reasons, their mobility is illusory as the characters’ movement in the world is constrained by their precarious social positions – which they cannot overcome.
Relationships of Power
The dynamic between Ovidiu and Marcel Ivanov in Stuff and Dough as opposite figures provides the balance of the film. Ovidiu, naïve and young, is influenced by the presence and power of Ivanov. As the film begins, we observe how Ivanov arrives at Ovidiu’s home. Ivanov is there on business, and proceeds to look for Ovidiu while exchanging some pleasantries with his parents. When Ivanov finds him, the room looks much like a teenager’s, with posters on the walls, objects strewn all over, and an old couch as his bed. As Ivanov sits next to him, he places his hand on Ovidiu’s knee in a clear demonstration of his power and influence over the younger man. The centered, fixed camera, with each of the two characters within the frame, seems to speak of a balance of power between the two but the placement of Ivanov’s hand on Ovidiu’s knee challenges the perceived status quo, and betrays the disequilibrium of their communications. Though he never raises his voice, nor does Ivanov share the frame with the younger man throughout the film, his presence dominates their interactions. Ovidiu’s naïveté, clearly established by Ivanov’s presence – who acts as a tutor in organized crime, even when that influence is unwanted – is counterbalanced by his evolution and growing awareness of his situation at the end of the film.
In the enclosed space of the car, the only connection that the trio has with the outside world is via the cellular phone, which Ovidiu uses to communicate with Ivanov. The cell phone is a symbolic artifact of Ivanov’s control over Ovidiu. That power is never relinquished and does not decrease in intensity, even though the spatial distance between the two would preclude any face-to-face interactions. It is through the cell phone that Ovidiu lets him know that they have been attacked out of the blue by a couple of strangers and that Ivanov checks in and controls the younger man as he is on the road. The mobile phone becomes, therefore, a substitution for Ivanov’s controlling nature. Not coincidentally, in one scene when Ovidiu delivers the package to the address he was given, the man who receives the package calls Ivanov, and when he is asked to put Ovidiu on the phone, rather than passing him the cellphone, the other man holds it out to Ovidiu’s ear – not allowing him the control and power over it. 
Similarly, in Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes, Cordoba and one of his cronies attack a legless man and steal his money, in a scene reminiscent of Los Olvidados/ The Young and the Damned (Luis Bunuel, 1950). They use the money to buy a slice of pizza, which they quickly discard. This scene highlights what they value as essential: the ability to intimidate and prey upon others who are weaker than them. The opening sequence, when Cordoba and Pablo attack and rob a man travelling to the airport in a taxi, reveals dynamics of power between different individuals. At one point, their taxi is forced to stop by another driver, jostling for position in a gridlock while in traffic. Annoyed by the situation, Cordoba gets out of the car, threatens the other driver with a gun, makes him retreat, and finally shoots one of the car’s tires – violently asserting power over the other man. However, that dominance is quickly lost. After dumping the passenger on the side of the road (in a wide shot in an uninhabited area), the taxi driver takes the gun away from Cordoba while applying some child-like punishment (ear twisting and occasional kicking). While we do not hear the conversation, the reversal of power is evident in this scene and demonstrates that leverage and control – especially on the streets – are uncertain and easily changeable conditions. Being on the streets, Cordoba and the rest of his gang are forced to adapt to street-level dynamics, which can be seen as a realistic representation of the condition of disaffected youth in contemporary society.
The Absent Family and Urban Violence
The relationship of power between characters in both films is a result of the ability to utilize or inflict some sort of violence. In Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes, violence is ever-present, manifesting itself in many different ways – from Cordoba and Pedro attacking a legless man to a confrontation with other men standing in an unemployment line. On the other hand, violence in Stuff and Dough is more understated and generally focused on outcomes of violent behavior; it is only visualized in an interaction with the strangers in the red Jeep, who attack Ovidiu and Vali with a baseball bat. Instead, the violence in Stuff and Dough rests more on psychological domination – the emotional terror that, by the end of the day, Ivanov can instill in the young men.
After their return from Bucharest, the trio has a meeting with Ivanov, in which he reasserts his position of authority and practically forces the unwilling Ovidiu to continue working for him. Ivanov’s influence is such that he gives directions and orders, including in the young man’s home. As the rest of them leave the house and only Ovidiu is left, the camera focuses (in a medium close-up) on his face, which betrays the seriousness of his situation and the personal implications of what he would be forced to undertake if he continues to work for Ivanov. The stillness of the actor as he seems to be taking in all that has happened throughout the day marks the transformation that he has experienced: from the rather naïve youngster at the beginning of the film, to a more worldly and weary individual who has had to deal with the influences of a corrupting outside world, and the compromises that he is forced to make in order to survive.
The instability of the characters’ condition is reflected most clearly in their lack of familial ties, which is especially visible in Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes. In this film, only Sandra mentions the existence of a parent, to whose house she returns when tired of the perpetual nomadism of Cordoba’s life. The other young men do not even seem to have (or maintain) any familial relationships, as they are untethered by any family relationships. The situation is slightly different in Stuff and Dough as Ovidiu still lives at home, with his parents and grandmother. While appearances in this case create a sense of home, belonging, and strong familial ties, it is precisely that environment and especially a desire to detach himself from it that pushes Ovidiu towards Ivanov. While the physical distance between Ovidiu and his family might not be visible (as it happens with Cordoba), the emotional distance between the youth and the older generation becomes more and more pronounced. After he returns home, Ovidiu witnesses his mother’s attempt to engage him in conversation; as she complains about the heat of the day and her exhaustion, her son eats something in the family’s cramped kitchen.
This one-sided interaction reinforces the distance created between Ovidiu and the rest of the family, who has no knowledge of his formative journey and his entrapment that followed. As the mother leaves with comments about her exhaustion, the camera fixes in a close up on Ovidiu, sitting at the kitchen table. Caught in a claustrophobic, vicious circle, he cannot share with his mother what he’s been through, and while they are physically close, he becomes increasingly emotionally distanced from his family.
As a result of political transitions, economic and social instability lead to conditions of nomadism, which is especially pertinent and visible for youth who struggle with their position in an ever-changing milieu. The social and economic constraints imposed on young people position them in conditions of marginality, which aggravate feelings of social claustrophobia. Attempting to counteract the effects of this imposed situation, characters exist in perpetual nomadism – whether that appears as being on the road, as in Stuff and Dough, or through the absence of family and home, as in Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes.
The scarcity of means displayed in the stories of these two films is also seen in their aesthetics. To take one example, both films tend to use subdued palettes with tones of grey, green, or blue. Taking place both during the day (Stuff and Dough) and at night (Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes), the two films underscore the economic precarity of the societies they represent through gloomy aesthetics, a reflection of the surrounding environments, dilapidated cars, houses, and run-down streets. Furthermore, the instability of the subjects’ existence also translates into the film’s cinematography, especially evident for Stuff and Dough. If Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes uses a more static cinematography, shot with a fixed camera (with the exception of the opening scene, which has a more frenetic style), Stuff and Dough on the contrary has a cinematography in which the camera seems to be constantly moving between subjects. What this cinematography also reveals is the claustrophobic effect of the space. In a scene at the beginning of the film, Ovidiu gets ready to set on the road with his two companions; they are all gathered in the kitchen (besides the three of them, Ovidiu’s parents and his grandmother), as the pans of the camera between the various characters reveal the cramped confines of the space. This claustrophobic cinema becomes even more evident in the van as the journey is filmed from the backseat, as if the camera were a fourth passenger, moving between the three friends and capturing their interactions.
Throughout Stuff and Dough the camera stays close to the various individuals, with very few establishing shots. In fact, both the opening and closing scenes are close-up shots. As opposed to Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes, which begins with a mosaic of establishing shots and ends with a pull-back aerial shot of the docks as Sandra has left and Cordoba remains on the docks, the Romanian film maintains a steady perspective on the individuals and only captures their immediate environment. If extrapolated, Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes represents an intervention into the displaced youth and their peripheral urban environment as it seems to zoom in, observe, and then zoom out of the narrative. On the other hand, the cinematography of Stuff and Dough seems to suggest that it is just capturing a day in the life of a young man without extracting the story out of a specific milieu. In the end, though, both films reach a similarly pessimistic conclusion. Both films discussed here project a moderate optimism at the start. That is conveyed, in both cases, through the protagonist’s very specific goal: economic betterment through social and financial independence. However, in the end those hopes are squashed as the characters are subjected to physical and emotional violence, eliminating any possibility of escape; they become constrained and victims to the very environments that they were attempting to escape.
Raluca Iacob is an independent researcher, working as a film curator. She graduated in 2015 with a PhD in Film Studies from the University of St. Andrews, with a thesis on post- communist Romanian cinema. Her research engaged with understanding the development of post-communist identities by analyzing Romanian films through the perspective of marginality. Her research interests include world cinema, documentary studies, communist and post-communist cinemas, and critical theory.
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