Few trends in world cinema have divided audiences as much as the Romanian New Wave, with countless sleeper hits from that country making the festival rounds in recent years and a select few directors standing out. Their movies are steeped in an immeasurably slow-burn narrative approach, but the best of the bunch are anything but patience-trying ordeals. In some cases, such as the abortion thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” or the will-they-or-won’t-they-divorce drama “Tuesday After Christmas,” the technique is built around a form of payoff through expertly designed climaxes. The suspense crystallizes with the full weight of the gradual pace building up to dynamic finales.
“Police, Adjective” director Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Treasure” adopts a slightly different tactic: It uses a leisurely approach to deliver a heartwarming family drama, merging the sentimental uplift of a Frank Capra movie with a decidedly more esoteric style. The story follows good-natured Costi (Cuzin Toma), a low key family man whose main pastime is reading bedtime stories to his six-year-old son. But Costi also leads a fairly restricted blue collar existence, and as he spends his evenings sitting around with his wife after their child goes to sleep, it’s clear that he harbors greater determination than the routine that defines his life.
That means, when his neighbor (Adrian Purcarescu) drops by one day making claims about buried treasure, the opportunity to discover it energizes Costi’s world. But the rather mundane series of events that follow, as Costi attempts to help find resources to buy a metal detector and uncover the alleged treasure beneath his new colleague’s family property, strikes an amusing contrast with his aspirations. Their quest is at once pathetic and curiously engaging — it hints at Costi’s fantasies of a better life while retaining a measured focus on the moment-to-moment developments of their humorously inept late night hunt.
From the makings of a deadpan comedy, in which the high pitch wail of a metal detector becomes a hilarious audio motif worthy of Jacques Tati, “The Treasure” transforms into a bizarre thriller about Romanian bureaucracy — not unlike the ending of his brilliant “Police, Adjective,” where the conclusion revolved around a superior officer forcing his employee to look up several words in a dictionary. In the case of “The Treasure,” Costi and his neighbor are warned of state regulations that force them to report any riches they find. Whether or not they discover anything of value, it’s bound to be subjected to the same drab rules that dictate their current, uninspired working class routine.
The primary set piece of “The Treasure” finds the two men joined by the amusingly overconfident owner of a metal detecter as they wander around an empty yard in search of vaguely-defined riches. Starting and stopping at various points as egos clash and confusions arise, this prolonged sequence borders on the absurd — but at the same maintains a realistic quality that draws a unique contrast with Costi’s aspirations of wealth. This ridiculous gamble forms the closest he’s come to a big break. Porumboiu’s quiet, restrained atmosphere clashes to great effect with Toma, as Costi, as he attempts to remain invested in the unlikely prospects of finding something worth the effort.
But when he actually does, “The Treasure” deepens its exploration of outsized capitalist desires, with the underwhelming nature of their discovery pitted against Costi’s expectations for it. As Porumboiu guides the drama to an unexpectedly touching outcome, the movie develops a clever perspective on differing notions of wealth.
More than just a measured, deadpan look at bald ambition, “The Treasure” presents an inherent conflict between aspiration and reality, concluding that the best way to enrich one’s surroundings is to take some initiative. It’s a sweet outcome with a sour core, as it reflects the means by which governmental control can spoil even the positive developments in one’s life, while celebrating the possibilities of working around such demanding forces.
Porumboiu manages to deliver this heady thesis with a disarmingly slight touch, something we’ve never quite seen in other movies of its ilk. “The Treasure” may not be a major work from Porumboiu or his filmmaking tradition, but it proves that even cerebral formalism has its soft side.
“The Treasure” premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.