Treasure (Bleecker Street, R)

Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in Treasure. Credit: Bleecker Street and FilmNation

The year is 1991, and Ruth (Lena Dunham) is an American journalist on a pilgrimage to Poland, hoping to finally see where her family came from now that the Iron Curtain has fallen. Joining her is her father Edek (Stephen Fry), a Polish ex-pat, whom she didn’t even invite but who insisted on joining her for the journey anyway. Edek and Ruth (or “Rootie,” in Edek’s thick Polish accent) have already had a somewhat distant relationship since the death of her mother, and it goes from bad to worse as the good-natured yet overbearing Edek keeps sabotaging his Holocaust-research-obsessed daughter’s meticulously planned trip—first by missing his flight and arriving a day late, then by refusing to board the train and insisting on hiring a driver, Stefan (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a congenial local whom he treats like an old friend but literally just met him outside the airport. Ruth’s annoyance boils over when Edek insists on skipping a trip to Łódź, where he and Ruth’s mother lived before the War.

Treasure starts as a road trip movie, and a warm, pleasant one at that. Edek and Ruth make for a fine odd couple, she constantly exasperated at her father’s behavior, he pushing her buttons with jabs about her weight, her vegetarian diet (she eats “nothing but seeds!”), her failed marriage to a man he still stays in contact with. (Stefan also adds plenty of laughs as the straight man who’s just along for the ride, shrugging his shoulders and being up for any crazy thing that comes his way. Who’s ever met a cab driver this accommodating?) But then Ruth finally cajoles Edek into visiting Łódź, and there’s a shift. There, she starts to discover the family history that Edek has hidden from her all these years, and that he so desperately wanted to avoid: the factory that their family once owned before the War, and the apartment they called home—still occupied by the family that moved in the day after Edek and his family were ripped away and sent to Auschwitz, and still containing some of their family’s heirlooms.

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It feels weird to classify a movie whose emotional core is so centered around the horrors of the Holocaust as a “comedy,” but Treasure is indeed a very funny movie—not in a setup/punchline kind of way, but in the way that it constantly finds the humor in the clash between father and daughter and exaggerates it for comedic effect while still feeling honest and true. This smooths the transitions to the more dramatic material, and makes those scenes hit that much harder. Those seamless shifts are made possible through the flat-out phenomenal performance of Stephen Fry as Edek. Fry occupies his role so deeply that the gregarious Brit we know from his storied career is just gone, replaced by a bear hug of a Jewish dad with an impeccable accent, delivering his ample Polish dialogue flawlessly while also nailing the slightly-off syntax of a non-native English speaker. More importantly, he nails the balance between being a loving presence in Ruth’s life and a genuinely frustrating one, embodying the latter without ever making us, the audience, turn on him. Edek would be an overbearing asshole if Fry wasn’t so damn charming at all times. His Edek is the kind of guy you’d love to have as a friend, just probably not as a father. Dunham, too, is great in her role, portraying Ruth with a sort of numb loneliness that comes to the fore whenever she’s alone after a long day with her dad, a feeling conveyed not through dialogue, but through silences. And when it comes to showing Ruth’s shortcomings, Dunham is positively fearless.

German writer/director Julia von Heinz (in what I believe is her first mostly-English-language feature) surrounds her two leads with a vision of post-Cold War Poland in all its gray, brutalist, Soviet glory. There’s also an interesting undercurrent of what constitutes a new sort of anti-Semitism in the new Poland: not a hatred of Jews as a people, but a fear that Jews are returning to reclaim the property that was stolen from them during the war, a right they have in newly-free Poland that terrifies those that have been using that property for half a century.

Treasure is based on the 1999 novel Too Many Men by Lily Brett. I have not read the novel, but from what I can tell it seems there are some elements in the original work (including a bit involving imaginary conversations with dead Nazis) that von Heinz excised to keep the story more grounded while keeping the original’s tragicomedic core intact, which seems a wise decision. The result: Treasure is a movie that’s funny, poignant, emotionally powerful, excellently acted, and not to be missed. | Jason Green

Treasure is screening now at Plaza Frontenac, St. Charles 18, Ronnie’s 20, Arnold 14, and O’Fallon 16.

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