Film Review: The Treasure

Don’t expect a big payoff in Corneliu Porumboiu’s long-build satire about some hapless diggers for buried treasure; the journey is the joke here.
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If there were a form that somebody needed to fill out with identifying information about The Treasure, right under nation of origin (“Romania”) there would probably be a box for genre. Most people would probably write “comedy,” followed a few pencil-chewing moments later by a question mark. That’s about as close to a one-word description one is going to get for Corneliu Porumboiu’s mordant history lesson of a film, where the comedy isn’t played for laughs but instead a kind of shrugging, knowing grimace which says, “That’s Romania for you.”

The snail’s-pace story starts with a scheme that sounds like a bad idea to start and becomes more absurd as the film progresses. Costi (Cuzin Toma) is an office worker just barely able to support his wife and son, Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei). One night, storytime with Cornel is interrupted by their neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu). He wants to borrow several hundred euros, ostensibly for his mortgage, which he hasn’t been paying for years. After an initial rebuff, Adrian comes clean about the real reason for the requested loan. A shred of a family legend has him convinced that his great-grandfather had buried treasure on their land just before the Communists took over in 1947. Now he wants to rent a metal detector and find the treasure. If Costi will put up the money, Adrian will split half of whatever they find.

A buried fortune tends not to bring out the best in people, particularly fictional characters. But while Porumboiu is certainly aiming at human folly here, he’s after different targets than the average honor-among-thieves drama. What unfolds after Adrian’s proposal is like a slow-motion and low, low-wattage gloss on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, only recast as a sideways history lesson.

The main thrust of the plot follows the mechanics of the hunt. First Costi must convince his skeptical wife that any of this makes sense. He has to actually find a place to rent an affordable metal detector and operator. They have to determine where on Adrian’s family plot makes the most sense to search. A lot of time is spent in discussion over whether or not to declare what they find to the authorities (the government gets to claim anything they determine as being of historical interest). Lastly, he and Adrian have to actually dig when the detector starts sputtering and squeaking. None of this goes easy. As in Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, even the most basic activities are gluey and slow, tripped up by bureaucratic complications and an unending stream of human error and suspicion. While there are some seriocomic nods to daring bandit exploits (Costi is reading Robin Hood to Cornel), it’s clear that these are not criminal masterminds at work.

Everything about Adrian is like an advertisement for distrust, from his evasive answers to his offhandedly random planning; “We’ll drive to Bucharest and sell it to the gypsies” is the extent of his thinking about what to do if they end up finding any treasure. Costi is a deliberate type at the best of times and constitutionally unsuited to any kind of deception. His attempt to sneak out of the office to rent the equipment is so badly bungled and with such an awkward aftermath that it almost scans like a video being shown to office employees called “Things Not to Do.” The two men are symbolically chaotic, as though the country’s decades of pre- and post-Cold War bleakness have rendered them incapable of planning ahead. So much scraping and scrounging has left them so desperate to escape debt that if they ever get their hands on actual treasure, there’s every indication they’ll blow it almost instantly.

Stitched onto this narrative is a kind of running commentary on the current state of Romania (cluttered and turtle-paced, it would appear) as well as its history (one upheaval to the next). Porumboiu uses the hands-changing aspect of Adrian’s family land as his primary vehicle for this aspect of the film. While the men scan carefully over the grass with the metal detector, it’s as though they’re performing an X-ray of the country’s past, from the revolution of 1848 to Nazi occupation, and the overthrow of Ceausescu.

Anybody familiar with Porumboiu’s work isn’t going into this expecting fireworks of any kind. The performances are stiff enough to be anesthetized and the hijinks are all of the symbolic variety. As such, the “comedy” here is mostly theoretical and the final gag too slim to hang the climax on. Still, The Treasure’s deadpan study of human folly has a cumulative impact that fortunately doesn’t depend on getting an actual laugh out of the audience.

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