Buried Treasures and Communist Folktalkes: An Interview with Corneliu Porumboiu

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A certain hapless yet intent search marks the films of Romania’s Corneliu Porumboiu—from the flailing TV show about Ceausescu’s downfall in 12:08 East of Bucharest, to the crumpling investigation of Police, Adjective, to the involuted process of a filmmaker at work in When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism. Porumboiu’s droll, shaggy-dog style fosters that sensation, and it’s in full effect in The Treasure—a perfectly drawn-out tale of two men, Costi and Adrian, who are searching for a supposed buried fortune belonging to Adrian’s ancestors. Appropriately enough for Porumboiu’s frequently reflexive works, The Treasure grew out of a broken movie and some family lore about pre-Communist loot—in both cases belonging to Adrian Purcarescu, who plays the slightly bewildered Adrian, opposite endearing family man Costi (Cuzin Toma). The Treasure opens today (and features superb metal-detector comedy).

So your film was born from the ashes of your friend Adrian’s half-finished film?

In a way, yeah. Adrian is a friend of mine, and an actor and film director. He started to shoot a movie with his own money, in 2003. And he never finished. So at one point, he had 42 minutes in the editing, and he was missing half of the film. We tried in the beginning to complete his film, but it didn’t work. At the same time I knew about this legend he told me at one point. They say his grandparents in their village had buried a treasure before the Communists came to power. The same village and the same house as in the movie.

We went there to shoot a documentary, and the guy from my hometown with the metal detector came, and we start to shoot, and he started tell me about the story about the garden. And afterward, I felt very strange—I had a feeling that we were lost in that garden.

Lost in what sense?

Like we were in a dark hole. When I edited the material back home, I had the same feeling, because the garden was like a labyrinth. For me, it became more like something from history. And I had an impulse when I saw the material: I had to do something to get out of there. And I started to write a fiction film. For me, if the Communists were taking property from Adrian’s family and changing their lives radically, then if we turn back, we will find a treasure, a legacy. We could make a kind of circle. So much history was happening there.

For some reason I had the feeling that this story of family treasure is a common urban legend in Romania.

There are a lot of stories like that. It comes from… something incomplete. The Communists nationalized all the properties, but after the revolution, it took many years for the people to recover their own properties. Sometimes they didn’t even recover them. The law was very ambiguous. It’s difficult after that: what is your property in the end? What is the relation between state and individual? It’s an unsolved problem in a way.

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The story of The Treasure rests on an act of cooperation between two neighbors in the city: Costi and his neighbor, Adrian, who asks him for money and then reels him into this search for treasure in the country. That’s always struck me about Romanian films: the reliance on neighbors. I always imagined that had to do with sticking together under an poorly functioning government.

Yeah, in a way it’s because Romania is a society that even now is very familial in a way. They are very important because they are people that could help you right away. You don’t believe too much in the establishment in a way.

The fall of Ceausescu was the subject under examination in the TV show at the center of 12:08 East of Bucharest. Is there anything you miss about the Communist system or way of life?

I miss a lot of things because I was 14 years old when it happened. After the revolution, it was a long transition period—we are still there. So it is very hard to change mentalities, the way of thinking. What can I say, I was a kid—I felt feelings more than I had an understanding of the system. Anyway, it was all fake in a way, because the Communists came into Romania to a country that was somewhere between the industrialization period and the Middle Ages. That was Romania in the Forties—it didn’t pass through a consciousness and beliefs and ideas like in Western society. It was not natural. And Romania was more right-wing. It was fake for me, even in this period. It was this langue de bois. The people are speaking terms but it doesn’t mean anything. Empty.

I ask about your experience of the past because The Treasure is partly a fantasy of excavation. They go back and try to dig up these riches, but they also end up digging up conflict. They’re bringing out these buried emotions.

Of course, yeah. I was really impressed by that garden. I felt something there. All this history behind it.

Was no one living there?

Adrian’s brother comes from time to time—he’s a lawyer from Bucharest. Like in the film, he’s trying to fix things, step by step. But normally it’s empty.

Early on, Costi reads the story of Robin Hood to his son. It feels like a pointed choice of story in the context of Communism somehow.

It’s a left-wing story! [Laughs] When I did the casting, a lot of kids came, and the parents put a lot of pressure on them—because the parents had the feeling that they didn’t accomplish enough in their lives. So afterward, the kids are doing sports, English, swimming. And I could see the kids were tired. This is a certain type of mentality. My parents were the same, because all the time, you say, I want my kid to have it better. And in the beginning I wanted this telling a story, he’s reading, he’s put a lot of pressure on the kid. I chose Robin Hood because it fits with the rest of the film. And it’s a story about property also.

Could you talk about the film’s look? It begins with a very flat look to the interiors, like a tableau, before the outdoor scenes later in the film—the garden, and the playground.

I wanted the first part like a certain type of prison, in the offices. And at the same time I choose this distance because I wanted to have a tone, a distance from the character. Like this type of Orthodox icons. For me, I want the cinema, I don’t pretend to show real life.

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