As in Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu’s earlier 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, The Treasure deploys the use of real time to painstaking ends, whereby the absurd and quotidian find themselves at an exact one-to-one ratio. This droll and methodical film is every bit as acerbic a comedy as those earlier works, but it’s also Porumboiu’s most generous ensemble creation to date, if quietly so, probing norms of post-communist masculinity and cultural lineage with an almost surgical delicacy. A band of broke and disgruntled men go searching for a mythical buried cache, exposing in the process that the post-communist hangover and bottomlessly corrupt local government has left them feeling—for lack of a better word—devalued.
A bureaucrat, Costi (Cuzin Toma), is approached by his upstairs neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), asking to borrow 800 euros for the purposes of renting a metal detector, so as to locate and unearth the nominal treasure from his family’s house out in Islaz—gold and rubies that were buried, as Adrian’s late grandfather would have him believe, in a mad dash following the anti-aristocrat Wallachian Revolution of 1848. Even if Costi doesn’t have the money, the idea begins to burrow into his brain—and soon he finds himself taking time off from work to elicit the services of a professional metal detector, Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), for a planned weekend excavation.
The only snag is that any and all findings must be submitted to the police, whereby the specimen’s cultural “heritage value” is determined by the state, with chance of a 30% payout to the finders. Since Costi and Adrian have both fallen on hard times (a brief glimpse of Romanian television involves a political symposium wherein a pundit decries the post-Ceaușescu crisis of the “mono-industrial city”), the implicit assumption is that they’ll keep the secret between them. The Treasure is no thriller, but there are moments here—like when Costi finds himself forced to explain the plan to his wife, or when Cornel hints at the plan’s implicit potential for blackmail in the future—that inculcate the stakes with prisoner’s-dilemma paranoia.
Porumboiu’s filmmaking is so sparse and methodical that every cut—say, from a prolonged wide angle to a more conventional medium close-up—creates a teeming uncertainty, as the plan appears far- and further-fetched to the three principals and everyone who catches word of it. Cornel proceeds across the family plot, the ceaseless squawking of the metal detector incrementalizing Costi’s brooding uncertainty, as if the filmmaker is litmus-testing both his viewers’ faith in the nominal goldmine and his protagonists’ in tandem.
Frustrated by the overlong dig, Cornel and Adrian nearly come to blows. It’s inevitable that each man has his own idea about how the hunt should proceed, and the rigor of Porumboiu’s long-take manages to give an ostensibly mundane image—three guys bickering by a parked car, adjacent to an enormous hole in the ground—an almost mythic comic resonance. Before packing up his metal detector, Cornel reprimands Adrian: “A man makes his own problems; they don’t descend from heaven.”
In the nick of time, a payday of an unanticipated kind emerges—and if not exactly a Phyrric victory, it casts a surprisingly melancholy pall over The Treasure’s disarming final passage. Costi shares the spoils of his endeavor with a magnanimity that the film’s asceticism makes all the more nerve-wracking; where his magnanimity ends, the next generation’s greed (and its implicit despair) might well begin.
The film culminates in a crane shot the likes of which has never before appeared in Porumboiu’s filmography, making it impossible not to recall Cornel’s flippant axion and, intuitively, consider its inverse: The frame is pulled upward, binding both earth and sky in a jarringly transcendent billow—made possible, as all things must be, by the almighty dollar.