Buried Romaian treasure — and history — wryly intermingle in Corneliu Porumbiou's deadpan caper comedy.
The old truism that one man’s gold is another man’s garbage gives life to Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Treasure,” a sandpaper-dry caper comedy about two unlikely fortune hunters searching for long-buried backyard booty. A deadpan gem rich in Porumboiu’s trademark laconic protagonists, puffed-up petty bureaucrats and the long shadow cast by Romania’s four decades of communist rule, this is a very worthy successor to the director’s lauded “12:08 East of Bucharest” and “Police, Adjective,” and a more accessible work than his 2013 meta-movie “When Evening Falls on Bucharest.” Still very much a specialty item for discerning fests and arthouse cinemas, “The Treasure” more than confirms Porumboiu’s “Certain Talent” — the curious name of the film’s special prize from the Un Certain Regard jury in Cannes, where it could easily have held its own in competition.
While many of the breakout films of the Romanian New Wave have been noted for their “documentary”-like verisimilitude, “The Treasure” actually began life as a nonfiction film and gradually evolved into a semi-fictional one, each oriented around the real-life quest of its star, Romanian filmmaker Adrian Purcarescu, to locate a valuable stash believed to have been hidden by his grandfather on the grounds of a family estate. Here, Purcarescu plays a thinly veiled version of himself, an unemployed literary publisher who pays an impromptu visit to his downstairs neighbor, Costi (Cuzin Toma), to ask for a loan to stave off the bank foreclosing on his apartment. When Costi — himself a mid-level civil servant barely making ends meet — demurs, Adrian regales him with the tale of the buried loot and convinces him to share the cost of hiring a professional metal detector (played by Corneliu Cozmei, a real-life professional metal detector), in exchange for half of whatever they find.
From that wisp of an idea, Porumboiu spins an exceptionally droll comedy of manners and morals that digs ever deeper into matters of personal and national history as its characters dig into the soil around Islaz — the location of Adrian’s land, but also where, in 1848, the organizers of the short-lived Wallachian Revolution declared their ambitious slate of progressive social reforms. A hundred years later, the communists seized the property from Adrian’s family; after another revolution, in 1989, they succeeded in reclaiming it. Over those two centuries, the house functioned variously as a stables, a smithy, a communist kindergarten and even a strip club — and there is, in Porumboiu’s film, the strong sense that with each layer of soil that is unearthed, so, too is some fraught chapter of Romanian history. To this, Porumboiu adds a touch of the mythic, framing the film with an allusion to the Robin Hood legend — just the sort of hero recession-era Europe could use right about now.
It was already evident from “12:08 East of Bucharest” that Porumboiu’s cinematic sensibility had been strongly informed by the wry social comedies of the Czech New Wave, particularly films like Milos Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball” and Jiri Menzel’s “Larks on a String,” which showed ordinary citizens hopelessly entangled in communist red tape and institutional paralysis. And while communism may have ended long ago in Romania, Porumboiu’s films are full of sly reminders that the attitudes those times brought into being are not so easily wiped clean. Early on in “The Treasure,” Adrian and Costi learn that they are legally obliged to declare any items they find to the police, in case they are considered part of the “national patrimony” — a loophole that closes around the characters in a hilarious third-act setpiece that could be dubbed “Police, Adjective Redux.” But Porumboiu’s particular brand of farce is always shot through with the pulse of everyday life and its Sisyphean struggles. He is, simply put, one of our great contemporary observers of the human comedy.
Toma (last seen as the fugitive gypsy slave in Radu Jude’s superb “Aferim!”) and Purcarescu make for a very appealing, deadpan comic duo, while Cozmei adds the perfect note of hangdog support as the “expert” whose perpetually whirring, beeping, malfunctioning equipment is like the music one might hear in hell. Shooting in handsome widescreen (particularly the night scenes) with d.p. Tudor Mircea, Porumboiu stages most of the action in long takes from fixed camera positions that add to the movie’s carefully conjured feeling of inertia. As usual, the director forgoes an original musical score, but makes marvelous use of Slovenian industrial/death-metal act Laibach’s cover of 1980s pop hit “Live Is Life” under the end credits.