‘The Treasure’
Director:
Corneliu Porumboiu
Stars: Toma Cuzin, Adrian Purcarescu
Rating: NR
5 (out of 5) Globes

If you’ve seen any Romanian films from the last decade-plus — “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” etc. — you might know what to expect from “The Treasure.” The nation’s cinema, at least those exported as part of its New Wave, is one of depression, oppression and hostility, often caked in deep, pitch black humor. The films by Corneliu Porumboiu are the most deadpan and overtly funny, even as they depict misery and failure, staring at worlds where everyone is hilariously unpleasant and pointlessly argumentative. “Police, Adjective,” perhaps his most famous work, famously ends with one of his signature static long takes, with an innocent kid’s fate sealed via a comically protracted grammatical debate.

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Poromboiu’s “The Treasure” is thus more of the same — or so it seems. It’s a treasure hunt movie, Romanian-style, which is to say it’s brought down to a particularly unpleasant patch of earth. Our heroes aren’t adventurers but desperate men. Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) is strapped for cash, having made the mistake of working in the publishing business in a country where less than four percent of the population actually reads. He comes to his neighbor, Costi (Toma Cuzin), with a scheme: he knows that there’s some loot buried somewhere on his grandfather’s estate, and he needs help finding it. Costi proves relatively nice about it, which means he only argues with Adrian for 10 screen minutes before signing up. 

What follows is a hilariously joyless adventure, one mired in practicality and red tape. Before they embark, Costi and Adrian visit a lawyer, who informs them a good chunk of their bounty must be handed over to the government. They must find a guy (Corneliu Cozmei) with a metal detector; he turns out to be as surly as they are. Once they get to the location, they spend a good half hour of the film hopelessly combing the expansive grounds, going over and over the same areas time and time again. The longer their hunt goes on the funnier it becomes, long silences punctuated by the blooping of the detector and petty bickering.

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We know where this is going — or at least we think we do. Romanian films don’t end happily, and “The Treasure” looks like it will be no exception. But we’re wrong. Without giving it away, the finale is as happy as Romanian New Wave cinema gets, which is to say not entirely but far more than the bleak capper of, say, “Everybody in Our Family.” It’s as though Poromboiu knows that we know his nation’s cinema and wants to play with our expectations. And so a film that had milked laughs out of suffering suddenly milks laughs out of something that is comparatively upbeat, despairing only when you stop laughing to give it a good think. It’s still a movie about sad desperation, the need for self-delusion in a country where happiness is thin on the ground. It just does it with the rough equivalent of a smile — or at least half of one.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge