Jan. 19 2016 05:34 PM

Romanian deadpan comedy is an absurd look at post-Communist anxiety and economic collapse

The Treasure

A grizzly, blue-collar type who survived Communism by understanding the virtues of both hard work and corruption, Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei) operates a metal detector with the kind of plodding efficiency that would drive a patient man crazy. That his services have been acquired to find the buried family fortune of a desperate and bankrupt bourgeoisie-type named Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) is an irony not lost on The Treasure. This is, after all, a deadpan comedy about the serious micro-implications of economic collapse.

The film's scenario underscores both characters' fundamentally different definitions of work ethic. If Cornel and Adrian fittingly represent Romania's ongoing class division, the film's lead character Costi (Toma Cuzin) resides somewhere in between. While certainly perceived as a hard-working man attempting to solidify a future for his family, he's also not immune to a "get-rich-quick" scheme involving loot supposedly buried immediately before the Communists took power decades before.

As he did to similar effect in 2009's Police, Adjective and 2013's When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, director Corneliu Porumboiu uses the power of language and sound design to establish a comedy of increasing tension. The hilariously pitchy squealing from Cornel's metal detector may come to represent the absurdity of the trio's pursuit, but it also reveals an ideological chasm that has presumably lingered in Romania for decades.

Uncertainty and resentment reside at nearly the center of every conversation. Early in the film Costi and his wife discuss their son's troubles with a bully at school. The conversation unveils his fear of hostility and her growing frustration with male weakness. Porumboiu's camera refuses to cut away as Costi squirms in his seat, her dialogue cornering his threatened masculinity one word at a time. Later, Costi finds the time to lecture his son on the best way to avoid a fight—grab your attacker's hands and scream!

This idea of inevitable confrontation splinters out to the narrative at large. The aggressive exchanges between Adrian and Cornel increase as technical problems with the metal detector complicate their dig. Day turns to night, and Adrian's impatience and judgmental attitude nearly drives Cornel to violence. Costi seems amazingly indifferent to their potential fisticuffs, focused instead on shoveling dirt out of an increasingly large hole in the ground.

The Treasure walks the razor's edge between tones, but never veers into the realm of dark comedy. Porumboiu values the playfulness of words over the visceral, the political and social subtext of contradictory statements and scenarios. A conversation involving the best way to expunge a nesting flock of crows best articulates how these stylistic interests cohere within a narrative about many different showdowns.

"A man makes his own problems," grumbles Cornel, his words rather astutely skewering Adrian's pattern of unjustifiable excuses and perceived injustice. Still, The Treasure also examines the argument's counterpoint. A man can make his own luck too, like the character of Robin Hood, who has become a bedtime favorite of Costi's young son.

Porumboiu remains the most accessible of filmmakers to have gained international acclaim during the Romanian New Wave that began in the mid-2000s. Maybe its because he so expertly infuses conventional genres with complicated character motivations that speak to greater institutional developments at large. The system may be broken, but that doesn't mean we can't laugh a little at the slow-motion breakdown.

The Treasure, which opens Friday, Jan. 22, at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park, feels like an even clearer distillation of this style, a move away from the academic pretentions inherent to previous work and toward a more effortless and classic subversion of Romania's societal façade. Still, Porumboiu has managed to retain the cutting sense of humor that makes his work so enjoyable and identifiable. As a parting gift, he gives us modern poet laureates Laibach screaming over the final credits, "Life is life!"



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