In world cinema, austerity isn’t just a quality — it’s an aesthetic ideal that gets passed around from country to country. The epicenter of high cinematic austerity was once the Sweden of Ingmar Bergman. Then it was the Czechoslovakia of the pre-Communist new wave, then the Germany of Fassbinder, then the Iran of Kiarostami, then the Romania of that new wave.
“Two Lottery Tickets” is a Romanian film that could be called a caper comedy, but it’s been made with a bone-dry austerity — a meticulous and shrewdly observed shagginess — that viewers will recognize from far more serious pieces of Romanian cinema. In this case, it’s that very quality that grounds the comedy. At one point the characters actually mock Romanian cinema, calling it too tragic and morose to catch the real spirit of Romania. I can’t speak to the accuracy of that, but I can say that “Two Lottery Tickets” is an existential-absurdist, dirty-kitchen-sink vision of ordinary lives that’s just funny and invigorating enough to hit a note of truth.
The movie is about three stooges: a trio of scraggly drinking buddies who hang out at a daytime bar so desolate it’s like an empty roadside bodega. There’s Dinel (Dorian Boguță), a mechanic who’s a sad-sack puppy, sweet and dim, a “practical” man who’s unable to see what’s right in front of him, which may be why his wife has been working in Italy for the last two years. There’s Sile (Dragoș Bucur, from “Police, Adjective”), a carpenter who’s a gruff, bearded sports gambler and ladies man, sort of like Gerard Butler as a ruffian loser. And there’s Pompiliu (Alexandru Papadopol), a government worker who’s the most presentable of the three, even though he’s a flaky anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist.
At the bar one day, the three agree to go in on purchasing a lottery ticket. Several days later, they learn that they’ve won, and won big. The payout? Six million Euro. They’re rich! There’s just one problem. Denil, in the lobby of his apartment building, gets accosted by a couple of macho jerks from Bucharest — one tall with a Moldavian accent, the other with a creepy haircut and a short fuse. The haircut dude gets in Denil’s face and demands, just because he can, that Denil hand over his bumbag. The scene plays out as a petty humiliation, and Denil is so scatterbrained that it’s only a few days later that he realizes he put the lottery ticket in the bag. Can they track down the identity of the thief and get the winning ticket back?
“Two Lottery Tickets” takes the form of a bumbling amateur detective yarn, and if it were done with a quirkier tone and set in Brixton, you could easily imagine it as a Miramax “crowd-pleaser” from the ’90s. But the writer-director, Paul Negoescu, adapting a 1901 novel by Ion Luca Caragiale, works with a haphazard real-time logic and a deadpan chortle that makes the movie more of a cousin to the films of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki. We’re watching a movie about the twists and turns that life can take as you’re chasing its tail. Yet if you stand back far enough, you see that there’s a cracked design to it all.
The three start to knock on doors in Dinel’s apartment building, which gives us a cross-section of the dissolute slackerdom of Romanian society. They discover that the culprits visited two prostitutes in one apartment and left a matchbox there, which leads them to a hotel, which leads them to an address in Bucharest. The reason this isn’t like a Miramax comedy is that each incident is given the exact same weight, whether it’s the trio’s trip to a police station, where the sarcasm of a cop’s promise to solve the robbery (“We’ll immediately send a forensic team to inspect the place, then we’ll close the borders and contact INTERPOL”) flies right over Dinel’s head; or a squabble over whether Dinel should register his ’60s Dacia roadster after giving it a new paint job; or the three picking up a hitchhiker who says she’s on her way to compete on “Romanians Got Talent.” The droll cynicism is ongoing, yet once the three get to Bucharest, an encounter with a police officer creates genuine suspense, along with a touch of mystic coincidence.
We, of course, want to see the three find their lottery ticket. Yet they’re such shambling, imperfect specimens of humanity that we can’t help but suspect such a resolution might prove too good to be true. What I can reveal is that “Two Lottery Tickets” has an ending that elevates the spirit, and that grows directly out of their tin-pot odyssey. The future of Romanian cinema would do well to include a few more movies that strike this kind of balance between despair and delight.