Aptly named and drolly executed, leading to a transcendently funny, endearing and unexpected finale, “The Treasure” confirms Corneliu Porumboiu as the joker in the Romanian New Wave pack. The “12:08 East Of Bucharest” and “Police, Adjective” director is no stranger to grafting a layer of mordant, defiantly hangdog Eastern European humor onto the social realist critiques that his peers approach in a more straight-on manner, but with his newest film, which deservedly won a prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, he takes that impulse further into strange, new, almost fairytale territory. It’s a bizarre mix of opposites: insistently grounded (often literally–there is a lot of digging) but eventually whimsical; initially wearying but so very, very worth an investment of patience. It may not be as biting a satire as his aforementioned titles, and no doubt Romanian New Wave purists will find it frivolous wish-fulfillment in comparison to the dour fatalism that can mark the movement elsewhere (Radu Muntean‘s Cannes title “One Floor Below,” for example) but “The Treasure” comes for some of us as a breath of fresh air. Introducing welcome new elements into a national cinema that has been so well-defined for so long that there’s a danger of it falling into self-parody, Porumboiu’s film crossbreeds Romanian cinema with a loopy, Jarmusch-ian sensibility and works into it all a heart of literal gold.
You will not believe a word of what I’ve said above for the first while, however. It starts with a willfully drab scenario that had me worried I was about to learn as much about Romanian mortgage rates as I had about vehicle registration law in the Muntean film. Costi (Cuzin Toma) is reading the Robin Hood stories to his 6-year-old son (nicely characterized as a rather petulant and not necessarily adorable youngster), when his neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) drops by. Adrian asks to borrow money–800 euros–or he will lose his home having fallen badly behind on mortgage payments. Costi is sympathetic but, hardly flush himself, cannot spare the cash, and so after a long, awkward conversation shot in a flat, claustrophobic two-shot, Adrian leaves and we appear to be in for a downbeat examination of the limits of generosity and self interest vs community spirit in economically depressed Romania. But then Adrian contacts Costi again the next day with a new proposition: the €800 was in fact to hire a metal detector because he believes his grandfather left him a coded message from his deathbed suggesting that he had buried something of value in the grounds of the old family home. Adrian will split the findings 50/50 with Costi if Costi fronts the money for the machine.
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There are complications: if the treasure, which is of an unspecified variety, turns out to be of interest in terms of its Romanian heritage, the state will seize it and the men will only get a small percentage of its value–if the authorities find out about it. So, already entering into a somewhat conspiratorial relationship where they tacitly agree to keep the quest on the QT, Costi hires a curmudgeonly professional, Cornel (Corneliu Cozemi) and the three men drive out to Adrian’s childhood home to hunt for the loot.
There is a lot of digging. Cornel and Adrian do not get on, and Cornel’s habit of waggling his equipment over any little piece of wire turned up during the dig, so that it emits its daft sci-fi theremin bleat starts to get on everyone’s nerves, as does his insistence that one particular spot is the best candidate, no matter how far down the guys dig without turning up a thing. This is the deadpan comedy of repetition, certainly, but it also cleverly lulls us into a rhythm whereby we think we know what is going to happen, only to pull the rug several times from that point on.
To say too much more would be to spoil a film that, after a challenging start simply gets better and better across its slim 89-minute running time. In fact, when it’s cut finally to an absurdly sublime use of Laibach‘s bombastic death metal cover of Opus’ awful “Live is Life,” I kind of wanted to stand and cheer. But it’s by no means a sell-out in terms of the ideas and principles of new Romanian cinema — there is an extended absurd police station scene that recalls “Police Adjective” in its black humor and critique of Romanian institutional authority; there are several references to the country’s history during the excavation section and while there’s a gentle turning-up-the-dial for humor purposes, the dialogues and interactions remain firmly in that familiar quotidian register. After all, they may be doing an extraordinary (and pretty dumb) thing but these are very ordinary men, with very ordinary problems, which makes their stubborn adherence to this childish pipe dream all the more perversely admirable and touching.
That said, there is at least one major, in-depth review of this film out there that manages to not once mention the words “funny” “comedy” “laugh” or “wit,” which indicates that perhaps it’s possible to miss that aspect of the film, or to find its presence unimportant, in which case I’d imagine it might be a very empty experience indeed. But if you’re at all on its wavelength, “The Treasure” builds up to be hilarious, as much for the sense you get that the film is surprising itself in its latter stages, as for any straight-up jokes. Featuring unusual optimism and an endearing warmheartedness towards its central character and his ultimate motivations, “The Treasure” suggests that you can have both feet of clay (there really is an awful lot of digging) and flights of fancy, and in the battle between the prosaic and the pie-eyed, the prosaic doesn’t always have to win. [A-]