He doesn't get as much press or awards attention as Cristian Mungiu, but I dunno: Corneliu Porumboiu will always be "my" Romanian film director, somehow. His feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest is one of my favorite comedies of the 2000s and one of my favorite satires ever; and now, ten years later and with feature #4 behind him, I still root for him in a way that I don't, really, for anybody else making movies right now - not in Romania, not anywhere else in the world. And that's true even when said feature #4, The Treasure, is perhaps not impossible to disregard as a trifle. A trifle laced with arsenic, to be sure. But especially coming on the heels of his pointedly aimless and tough When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, this is pretty much a crowd-pleaser through and through. A crowd-pleaser by Romanian art film standards, but still...

Crowd-pleaser or not, The Treasure is very much in line with the nibbling sarcasm and historical long-view that made 12:08 East of Bucharest so great: once again, we are presented a dry character comedy about people dealing with the fallout from the collapse of Romanian Communism, years and years later. And just to add to the woes of its leads, The Treasure drops in a dose of post-2008 economic misery to boot: Costi (Tuma Cozin) is keeping his head above water and providing meagerly for his wife and son, but without any margin for error, and that's far more than can be said for his neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcărescu, who lived through a version of these events with Porumboiu), who is pretty much completely broke. So broke, in fact, that he's willing to trot out a madcap fantasy premise into the stark long-take, grey-on-grey Euro-art realism of The Treasure's cinematography and mise en scène: apparently, his great-grandfather buried a treasure back in the old family home, many decades ago. The rise and fall of the Communist regime, shuffling the property away from the family and back again, means that nobody has ever had a chance to go back and find it, and Adrian, with absolutely nothing to lose, has decided to go hunting. But he doesn't even have the not-terribly-high fee needed to pay for the metal detector operator, which is where Costi comes in. In fact, Costi also doesn't have that fee, but he at least has the means to trick somebody else into giving it to him.

That gets us to The Treasure's A-plot, which finds Costi and Adrian standing around uncertainly as metal detector owner Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei, who actually does this for a living, and is not an actor) decodes the various bloops his gizmo makes while offering up no indication that he finds these two bozos interesting on any level other than as a source to pay his fee. And this is - I mean, comedy is in the eye of the beholder, but this is hilarious stuff. In part, that comes from the basic contrast between the flighty, magical realist nature of the scenario, and the tar-black, bone-dry humor with which Porumboiu stages it, along with the flat visuals provided by Tudor Mircea's cinematography.

This is the same aesthetic the writer-director has used four times now (ignore the pawky humor, and it's the same aesthetic as the great majority of films produced in the decade-plus of the Romanian New Wave), but his preceding films have all generally drawn from the storehouse of art film narrative scenarios; applying this style to a lighthearted domestic fable - it's just inches from a 1990s Chris Columbus film, really - does miraculous things to refresh not just the aesthetic, but also the story itself. We are constantly aware that this is not going at all the way that a story about adult men going on a treasure hunt "ought" to go; it has absolutely no narrative urgency, and the characters seem annoyed and baffled to be there. It's an anti-caper, focused with journalistic-like zeal on the grind of using a metal detector (damn near half the movie feels like it's about Cornel explaining his readings to the client) and the curious bureaucratic tangles involved in recovering pre-War objects, which both threaten the men's quest and end up weirdly benefiting at the end. It's unromantic in the extreme, with unlovely visuals and tired, petulant protagonists.

As if being a sardonic anti-farce wasn't good enough, The Treasure does all of this while smuggling in a running commentary on the exhausting fact of being a Romanian in the 2010s, obliged to deal with the huge shitpile of problems that all the Romanians between 1947 and the present day have left for them. It's right there in the basic scenario, of course: Adrian's ancestors leaving behind unclear rumors about some kind of undefined Something Valuable, which was lost to time in part because of the feckless meddling of the government under Communism and the even more feckless meddling of the government in years since. The shifting fortunes of the old family home reflect a country and a population whirling from a lack of definite personality in the wake of the post-Cold War world: the building has been everything from a school to a strip club, we are told, trying to find the thing that would work for it and never quite figuring out what that might be, while leaving the physical markers of all its incarnations behind for the treasure hunters to find. So what if it's an obvious metaphor: they are digging through Romania's recent past, trying to find something of value. In any context other than a dry, self-negating comedy, maybe that would be cloying, but guess what: it's not any other context.

The payoff for all of this is a film that's funny, smart, and at 89 minutes, mercilessly efficient (the long takes of European slow cinema rarely crackle by as fast as they do here). It's also, maybe, just a smidgen insubstantial; after every one of Porumboiu's earlier films, I found myself almost vibrating with excitement about all of the ideas that had just been dumped into my head, and this time I left thinking that it had been very pleasurable, and even, surprisingly, very sweet and sentimental in the final scene, and how about that. It is not bravura cinema. But maybe it doesn't have to be, in order to be a thoroughly beguiling entertainment that doubles as a razor-sharp social document.