To watch Corneliu Porumboiu’s dryly funny and methodically constructed The Treasure is to witness, as with many examples of the Romanian New Wave, an exhilarating contrast between aesthetic and underlying ambition. Deliberately put together using a stripped down style that reflects the quotidian events being depicted, it slowly gathers steam to become a conceptual marvel that wraps up on a note of genuine transcendence. In a movie about two regular people trying their best to bear up against the weight of bureaucracy, political history and the thousand little humiliations, obstacles and, yes, delights of day-to-day life, a functional aesthetic is part of the point.

The two schlubs in question are Costi (Toma Cuzin), a low-level functionary at a government office in Bucharest, and his neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), a failed business-owner. Both are struggling to make ends meet and Adrian, who is on the verge of losing his house, makes Costi a proposition. Legend has it that his great-grandfather buried a treasure trove of old coins in the garden of his country home and if Costi would simply pay for a professional metal detector to help them find it, they could split the proceeds.

It’s a simple premise that Porumboiu never dresses up with artificial drama. No third-act gangsters, murders or chase scenes with people running across a European square with bags of Nazi gold.

It’s a simple premise that Porumboiu never dresses up with artificial drama. No third-act gangsters, murders or chase scenes with people running across a European square with bags of Nazi gold. In fact, a third of the film is bogged down with the tedious (to them and not, thankfully, to us) details of negotiation and preparation. From scraping together the metal detector’s fee to hammering out terms to making up cover stories to slip away from the office while doing all these things, Costi finds himself wading through more than the usual dose of the trivial nonsense that makes up the life of a worker bee. Such is the existence of the 99% whose dreams and ambitions can only fly so far into the giddying heights of fantasy when a reality this drab clings to their ankles. Porumboiu’s camera enhances that drabness and simulates the uneventful nature of these men’s lives with long takes that often follow events in real time with minimal cuts, framing participants against bland backgrounds in sustained static shots. Even the sets are distractingly spare. The only instances of obvious filmmaking artifice — swooping camera movements, musical score, odd angles — rear their heads in the final scene, at which point they have been earned, providing both thematic and aesthetic contrast to what had come before.

None of this is to suggest the film is boring. I was put off by Porumboiu’s oft-praised Police, Adjective precisely because it took the slow cinema concept to a point that felt alienating. He finds a better balance here, injecting urgency into the proceedings however deliberately paced they may be. That urgency springs from the idea of and even the very word “treasure,” an outlandish collection of letters that injects color into the greyness that surrounds it. That imagined sparkle is matched only by the gleam in the two men’s eyes as they think about what they could do with real wealth. There is little human drama more universal than that derived from the average person’s desire to transcend the crushing disappointment of being, well, average. In this case, that drama is complicated further by the shadow of Romania’s history and contemporary political landscape hanging heavily over every scene.  And lest you think it’s all doom and gloom, the film also contains one of the most unique and extended comic sequences I’ve seen all year as the central duo meet up with gruff metal detector Cornel in Adrian’s rural garden to look for the treasure. They spend over 12 hours on that patch of land, fighting over everything from politics to how to use the detecting equipment, their arguments punctuated by the nerve-shredding beeps of said machinery as it picks up every single nail and piece of wire in the area. It’s an exquisitely mounted bit of absurdist humor that has you laughing out loud without ever quite letting you forget the men’s hope-fueled desperation.  Ultimately, this is a movie about how easy it is to let the world beat the dreams out of your head and all that comes with glimpsing them again when you least expect to.


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