There is a moment in “The Treasure” when main character Costi (Toma Cuzin) and a couple cohorts are in the Romanian countryside, just outside Bucharest, using a metal detector to search for a long-rumored treasure buried somewhere on the grounds of a family estate. As they do, we hear, but don’t see, a couple neighbors discussing and dismissing this group’s search as mere storybook outlandishness. It is the only time “The Treasure” directly comments on what would appear, in any other context, to be the absurdity of this undertaking. After all, to emphatically re-iterate, they are searching for buried treasure. But unlike, say, Mike Cahill’s quirky comic gem “King of California” (2007), which tackled the idea of buried treasure with treasure maps and the legend of a Spanish explorer's cache of gold befitting the film’s overall fanciful vibe, “The Treasure” remains firmly on an even keel throughout, a pragmatic version of an adventure story, where everything fantastic is strained from the fantastical.
Writer/Director Corneliu Porumboiu, after all, is a product of the Romanian New Wave, a genre predominantly composed of long takes, static frames, au natural soundtracks, monotone dialogue existing as conversations with very deliberate beginnings and ends, and sullen characters born of grim circumstances. None of that is different in “The Treasure.” He sets shots in front of white tile and plain walls, and pens out-of-office conversations that are no different than in-office bureaucratic nothingness, often dancing in colorless circles. All his characters are scuffed by life, whether its Costi and his wife (Cristina Toma) zoning out to television reports of financial distress that mirror their own, or their son (Nicodim Toma) being bullied at school, or their downstairs neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), whose once-thriving business has gone bust. Now Adrian has an idea to potentially get rich quick, but he needs someone’s help, which is to say he needs someone’s money, and so he comes calling on Costi.
A relative, he says, is purported to have buried some sort of treasure on the family estate long ago, in the years before the Communists took control of the country. But to dig it up, he needs a metal detector, and a metal detector costs money that he doesn’t have. Costi doesn’t have it either, yet he remains intrigued for the paradoxical reason, of course, that he doesn’t have money. He identifies the risk versus reward, captured in a wonderful shot of he and his wife sitting on the living room sofa, him leaning forward, her sitting back. They deliberate, and as they jointly agree this treasure would be a boon, if real, he sits back and she takes his hand. This is level-headedness born of desperation, a sensation that imbues the entire film, where characters seek hope in the seemingly hopeless, but not with naïve joy so much as a resigned what-else-is-there? In this context, there is something dismal about pinning all your hope on X marking the spot.
But then, X does not mark the spot. Virtually the entire middle portion of the film takes place in the country, where the wind whispers in the trees, the men squabble, shovels bang against the dirt, and the metal detector’s squawk that won’t stop becomes more of a nag than beacon. The guy (Corneliu Cozmei) using it doesn't even seem entirely sure he's using it right; the three men repeatedly just stand there, hung up on the most mundane of arguments, the most pointless of details. It emblemizes the entire quest, for even if they find something they learn it will have to be reported to the authorities, who will potentially keep it, as if even the Communism moving out of Romania and the Democracy moving in has changed nothing.
Yet even as the film diligently works to strip away all idealization of this quest, it gradually allows a hard-earned optimism to creep back in, if not in the system, per se, which can be circumvented perhaps only by blind luck, but in the individual and the chance to do the right thing. Near the beginning, Costi reads his son the story of Robin Hood, and his son remarks, with an honesty born of innocence, that his dad isn't Robin Hood. But in the end, maybe he is, and ultimately what is most unbelievable in "The Treasure" is not the treasure itself but what Costi chooses to do with it.