Dir. Cristi Puiu. Romania. 2001. 90mins.

Cristi Puiu's feature debut, made on what appears to be a non-existent budget, takes a close look at the underbelly of Romanian everyday life and comes up with a strangely compelling statement that goes way beyond its apparently insouciant approach. A road movie following, for most of the time, three characters driving in a van from Constanta to Bucharest and back, Puiu's film has the look and feel of a home movie. But it is worth looking beyond the deceptive first impression for the insights he has to offer on his homeland. Probably too long-winded and self-indulgent to go beyond specialized distribution, the film is bound to generate considerable festival interest, as the response to its world premiere in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes seems to indicate.

Ovidiu, an unexceptional, commonplace young man, is dispatched by a local drug dealer in Constanta, Romania's gate to the Black Sea, to deliver six packs of unidentified substances to an address in Bucharest. Specifically instructed to go alone in the family van, never to stop on the way and to be on time, he predictably does everything wrong. He calls on his bosom pal to accompany him on the four-hour drive, the pal brings along his new girlfriend, on the way they are stalked by a red four-wheel drive and they barely manage to escape the goons chasing them, they arrive too late to the address they were given and they almost botch the entire affair before managing to handle over the merchandise. Predictably enough, they almost split in the process and when they finally come back home, feeling relieved that the one-time escapade is behind them, they find out that their future is no longer in their own hands.

Short on plot but long on moody conversations, it is shot almost entirely in medium close-up by a single hand-held camera placed in the back of the van and pointed respectively at each actor as they are delivering their lines. Barely framed, the length of the shots is apparently determined by the amount of film in the camera, used down to the last frame, that unsurprisingly, does not always match the beginning of the next roll. Sequences tend to overstay their welcome and the dialogue, for those who speak Romanian, though entirely lifelike, is particularly crude.

But for all this, the final outcome is one of unadorned and amazing authenticity, with plenty of unassuming, understated observations on the present situation in Romania, starting with the evident poverty and shortage of the most commonplace products, such as beer and Coca Cola, which are insinuated rather than highlighted by the plot. Thus, the miserable state of the two-lane blacktop which is one of the country's main traffic arteries in contrast to the constant presence of mobile phones as an essential part of daily life; or blatant police corruption which turns a blind eye to the underworld bosses settling their accounts out in the open. Not to mention the lack of any moral standards that might motivate his protagonists. And calling the villain of the piece Ivanov, the most immediately identifiable Russian name one can think of, can't be an accident either.

All this makes sense only because of the natural, unaffected manner of the two leading youngsters, Alexandru Papadopol and Dragos Bucur, who practically carry the film on their shoulders. Veteran Razvan Vasilescu provides the threatening touch which, again without overstating it, is clear from his first minute on screen.

Prods Rofilm, Romanian Studio for Cinematic Creation at The Ministry of Culture

Scr Razvan Radulescu, Cristi Puiu

Cinematography Silviu Stavila

Ed Ines Barbu, Nita Chivulescu

Prod des Andreea Hasnas

Main cast Alexandru Papadopol, Dragos Bucur, Ioana Flora, Razvan Vasilescu, Luminita Gheorghiu