A dry-rubbed lark from the often harrowing ultra-realist territories of the Romanian New Wave, The Treasure is about almost nothing — a shaggy-dog daydream as flyaway as its protagonists’ thoughts of instant wealth. Director Corneliu Porumboiu, whose 2006 12:08 East of Bucharest may still be the movement’s funniest film, reportedly began this as a documentary wherein the filmmaker would follow countryman and cineaste Adrian Purcarescu on his journey to find a legendary family treasure supposedly buried by his great-grandfather on the grounds of a country estate on the eve of the Communist takeover in 1947.
Somehow it became fiction, with Purcarescu playing a modified version of himself and Toma Cuzin enlisted as Costi, the hapless protagonist and family man whose help and funds Purcarescu enlists for his scheme.
It’s a film of matter-of-fact simplicity, despite its meta-ness (Purcarescu comes off as a shifty weasel playable by John Hawkes in an American version, and there’s no telling if his testy impatience and dishonesty are genuine, the actor’s riff, or Porumboiu’s take on the real man). In what may be the quietest heist movie ever made, the logistics are everything, beginning with Costi’s on-the-job lies to his boss (which inevitably entangle) and proceeding to his hiring a medium-tech metal detector, the operator of which is obligated by law to report any pre-WWII findings to the state. (The owners might net 30 percent of its worth in the end.) What to do, except hire the detector-for-hire outfit’s shady employee off the books instead after he’s promised to turn his back and report nothing?
The visuals are nearly all medium-distant, and the comedy is all textural, in the fallow beats and ellipses between the three men (the cucumber-cool detector operator, Corneliu Cozmei, plays himself) as the arduous process of scanning the overgrown property, with two different devices of varying reliability, drags on. (The detector’s whoopee-cushion siren serves as its own running gag.) In a manner so sly you could overlook it, Porumboiu invests this tissue-thin premise with the shadows of Romanian history — the derelict property is located in a town only a few characters remember was the location of the 1848 Proclamation by which Romania declared itself free of the Ottoman Empire. Unseen beneath the grassy soil lurk the telltale vestiges of the twentieth century, from the perhaps apocryphal pre-war booty to the metals left behind as the Communists turned the estate into a series of schools, bars, and strip clubs. Still today, the remnants of the Ceausescu era are everywhere; to find hope or salvation in the pre-Communist past, all you can do is dig.
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
Opens January 8, IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center
Available on demand