Corneliu Porumboiu‘s Comoara/The Treasure is an adventure film inspired by a real story and set against the backdrop of a bureaucratic society, and viewers should know as much about it going in, to set their expectations. Costi (Toma Cuzin) is a loyal and sparing father of the family whose routine is interrupted by a neighbor’s plea for help. Adrian (Adrian Purcărescu) first asks for a loan (with little success) to save him from his financial deadlock, and then lets him in on a family legend, this time earning more of his attention: there’s a treasure buried in Adrian’s grandparents’ garden and uncovering it would only take the small, shortly overcompensated expense of hiring someone to scan the terrain with a metal detector. Although Costi has no reason to believe him except for his own vague longing for life to be less life-like and more like the legend of Robin Hood, he accepts Adrian’s invitation to join in and share half of the potential treasure.
Far from requiring suspension of disbelief from the spectators, writer-director Porumboiu looks at the situation of a common man trusting a wild claim from every angle: Costi might seize the opportunity, but he’s considerate enough to lie to his boss about it (after the initial honest admission is taken for a poorly made-up excuse) and to want to keep it a secret from his son, for fear that he might later disappoint him by coming back bare-handed. Also unlike a fairytale is Costi’s discovery of national heritage regulations: if they do discover coins or pre-World War II objects, the state might reclaim them anyway, so they might be doing museums a favor instead of themselves. (The tendency of many Romanian films to pit the individual against the state is frankly tiresome, often enough, but Porumboiu turns it around for comedy later in the film.) The preparations of the treasure hunt leave enough time for the local history to surface, casting over the characters and their struggle to get by the long shadow of social tumult from the past century.
The Treasure is easily Porumboiu’s most enjoyable film since 12:08 East of Bucharest. Its best moments are satirical gems, which is what the author is best at, in terms of dramaturgy. There’s the memorable moment when Adrian, exhausted with digging, picks on the worker they hired to scan the yard, claiming that he’s misinterpreting the metal detector signals when he tells them that there’s something in the ground, making them dig pointlessly instead of just admitting that they paid for nothing. There’s the moment at the police section – the classical moment of adventure plot resolution, but with a twist: the local thief is collaborating with the village police unit to sort matters out, while the ‘adventure heros’, Adrian and Costi, wait around passively. The mise en scène is perfectly planned to draw attention to the thief. There’s also the moment, very close to the end of the film, when Costi finds the contemporary way of putting together a treasure. (Any more precise reference would be a spoiler, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you watch it.)
Since Porumboiu typically writes one-dimensional, idea-driven characters, the actors often have little to work with, but that hasn’t stopped several of his leads from fully inhabiting their roles. It seems like this was a good year for Toma Cuzin: after his dignified victim’s role in Radu Jude’s Aferim!, now he plays conciliatory figure, keeping his hopes for a better life hidden while there are pragmatic problems to solve. DoP Tudor Mircea (who also collaborated with Porumboiu for his previous When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism) uses subtly stylized framing and saturated colors to counter the mundane specificity of the script.
Whether The Treasure is engaging or not might depend on your sympathy for underdog humor and cinematic gags. There might be less to interpret here than in Metabolism or Second Game, but it’s at least this commentator’s opinion that Porumboiu’s thirst for meaning is sometimes a flaw. While it never develops into a coherent exploration of dreams repressed under capitalism and it’s not as formally playful as several of Porumboiu’s previous features and shorts, The Treasure has its place on that strip of land between social films and daydream cinema, which might not be the worst place to be.