'The Treasure' lives up to its title (unrated)

Costi, the Romanian Everyman at the center of The Treasure, leads a reasonably comfortable if not terribly exciting life. Played by Cuzin Toma, an actor with a melancholy, sensitive face and a gentle manner, Costi has an office job and a tidy, somewhat sterile apartment, where he lives with his wife, Raluca, and their young son, Alin (played by Toma’s real-life wife and son, Cristina and Nicodim). The boy likes to hear fairy tales at bedtime, and his father soon finds himself on an adventure that has all the markings of a modern fable.

Not that the film’s director, Corneliu Porumboiu, has much interest in showy magic or pat moral lessons. His films — The Treasure is his fourth feature — take place in the thoroughly disenchanted world of post-Communist Romania, and the attention he pays to that world is measured and meticulous. The Treasure is like the work of Samuel Beckett’s long-lost Balkan cousin — bleak, stoic and suffused with a flinty, exasperated empathy for its ridiculous characters. It’s also a subtle, almost stealthy X-ray of the European soul in a time of persistent economic trouble.

Most immediately, though, The Treasure is an absurdist anecdote, a modest story that has the feel of an urban legend. One evening, Costi is visited by one of his neighbors, a jumpy, dour fellow named Adrian, who has a business proposition that sounds like either a plea or a threat. Adrian (played by Adrian Purcarescu, a friend and colleague of Porumboiu’s) is desperate for money and claims to have a surefire way to get hold of some. He believes there is treasure buried under a tree on a country estate that belongs to his family. If Costi can pay to rent the equipment that can locate the loot, Adrian will give him a cut. What could go wrong?

Well, for one thing, there might not be any treasure. For another, the property might not really belong to Adrian, who might turn out to be such a jerk that he alienates Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), the guy with the high-tech sonar and imaging machines. There are plenty of other potential problems. Somehow, even the most banal possibilities — an empty hole in the ground, a trove of worthless junk, a find worth fighting over — are weighted with dread and suspense.

How can everything not go wrong? An almost palpable aura of fatalism hangs over Costi and, especially, the sullen, volatile Adrian, whose promises and equivocations are like bounced verbal checks. It’s hard to tell if he’s a con artist or a sucker who has somehow fallen for his own scam, and it may not make a difference. He’s an avatar of bad luck, a reminder of Romania’s miserable history.

The Treasure is quite funny — Costi, Adrian and Cornel act out a low-key farce as they traipse through the yard looking for subterranean clues — and rich with unstated implications. Porumboiu, as usual, is playing a long game, keeping you engaged with his rigorous formal wit until he can deliver a series of narrative and visual coups at the end. The final shot, accompanied by an improbable but perfect musical cue, is an astonishing cinematic gesture, an appalling, hilarious statement about modern values, the state of the world, human nature and everything else. This is a movie that lives up to its name.

Cast: Cuzin Toma, Adrian Purcarescu, Corneliu Cozmei, Cristina Toma.

Writer-director: Corneliu Porumboiu.

An IFC Films release. Running time: 90 minutes. In Romanian with English subtitles. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.

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