Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu, whose style of comic deadpan is as diligent and specialized as watch repair, offers up another parable of mores in The Treasure, about a man who agrees to help his unemployed neighbor look for a family fortune at a country house. Over the years, Porumboiu (Police, Adjective) has come to be considered an acquired taste, but this droll comedy is his most accessible movie since the breakthrough 12:08 East Of Bucharest; its left turns and sense of humor shouldn’t seem alien to anyone who appreciates, say, early Louie, even if the style is a heck of a lot more minimalist. But though some might be left yearning for the riskier gambits of Police, Adjective and When Evening Falls On Bucharest, Or Metabolism, this is still very much a product of Porumboiu’s knack for earning unexpected laughs by never letting characters do anything cinematic. Surreally underplayed, The Treasure turns a wish-fulfillment fantasy (let’s say our heroes aren’t left empty-handed) into a post-Communist monkey’s paw: You can have all the riches you want, but they’re in Romania.
Porumboiu’s movies treat his country’s totalitarian past as a joke played on the present, leaving his everymen and every-functionaries unable to resolve non-problems, give definitive answers, or admit anything. Here, the myth of Sisyphus, the Greek king cursed to roll a boulder uphill only to have it always roll down again, plays out anytime anyone asks a question. And that’s The Treasure in a nutshell; it’s a movie that’s absurdly short on conflict, but in which everyone seems to be doing their damnedest to protract every situation. (For one, it takes the men almost half the movie to actually get to the house.) It started out as a documentary about Porumboiu’s friend Adrian Purcarescu and the family legend about a fortune buried by his great-grandfather; when that treasure hunt turned out to be a bust, Porumboiu re-conceived the project as a fiction film, casting his buddy as a fictionalized version of himself. Thus, we have neighbors Adrian (Purcarescu) and Costi (Toma Cuzin) setting off in a hare-brained scheme to look for gold at Adrian’s homestead, which was seized by the Communists and served as an electronics factory, welding shop, kindergarten, disco, and strip club in rapid succession before being returned to his family.
The search becomes an archeological dig through the detritus of Romania’s recent past, guided by an incompetent metal detector (Corneliu Cozmei, playing himself) whose baffling, incessantly bleeping equipment makes for a weirdly mesmerizing gag; it’s one of those things that goes from funny to annoying to funny again by virtue of perseverance. With his deliberate long-take style, Porumboiu directs for maximum fiddling awkwardness, keeping characters in the frame even when they have nothing to do. Though it almost overplays its hand with a Robin Hood storybook motif, The Treasure manages a tricky balance between low-key social satire (as in Costi’s attempts to convince his boss that he is, in fact, going on a treasure hunt) and total fantasy (as in the bizarre coda, complete with Laibach blasting over the credits). And in between all the uncomfortable conversations and silences is a deceptively upbeat story of two men who barely know each other trying to go on an old-fashioned adventure in a world of stuffed shirts, red tape, and malfunctioning gadgets.