by Daniel Witkin
Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, Sundance Selects
“Every minute of the future is a memory of the past,” according to Slovenian industrial outfit Laibach in “Life Is Life,” their cover of a minor 1985 hit by Austrian pop-rockers Opus and the song that closes Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure. It’s a sentiment that the director might share, as his new film presents itself as a somewhat literalized excavation of Romania’s national past. Nonetheless, the song’s intrusion presents something of a shock. Until this point, the film’s soundtrack has been spare and literal, sensitizing us to both odd diegetic noises and the passing of time as our heroes go about the deceptively complex business of digging a hole. Porumboiu is contemporary cinema’s master of warped tautology, teaching us that life is life, non-ferrous metals are metals lacking in iron, and treasure is something to do with rubies and diamonds. Yet if that sounds too comfortable, he also unearths the layers of rationalization that uphold even these simple, definitive ideas. Life may be life, but what is life?
The plot of The Treasure revolves around people digging for riches in a backyard, lacking the means for more expansive adventures, and much of its humor derives from watching grown men bring their adult self-seriousness and anxiety to what is essentially a childhood pastime. The protagonist, Costi (Toma Cuzin), is a middle-class father who reads Robin Hood stories to his precocious son and works a dull office job, his formidable frame swaddled in sweaters and pullovers. Opportunity appears to knock when his unemployed neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), asks to borrow 800 euros for a peculiar purpose. Adrian’s grandfather is rumored to have buried his riches somewhere on his property to protect them from the communists. As Adrian puts it, “I think that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” After some vacillation, Costi ponies up, out of a sense of adventure but also, we will come to understand, because the vague promise of riches from the past seems a more sensible investment than anything offered by the present.
This is but one in a series of varyingly subtle barbs that The Treasure aims at the Romanian social fabric, and the desperation that it betrays imbues even the movie’s most mundane goings-on with a certain dark comedy. Never one to rush things, Porumboiu precisely outlines all the steps that Costi must complete before the digging can begin, detailing the particulars of gathering funds, sneaking out of work, and cutting a deal with opportunistic metal detector specialist Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei). Cumulatively, these episodes amount to a form of social portraiture, one that emphasizes corruption and compromise in all aspects of life. This societal condition lends itself especially well to a healthy strain of absurdist humor that has existed in Eastern Europe from the continental empires through Stalinization and now into the age of the Washington Consensus. One scene in particular, in which Costi’s boss accuses him of infidelity, offers a comically circular dialectic that recalls the denouement of Police, Adjective. Yet as in Kafka and Gogol, the ridiculousness of authority presents a threat unto itself, and the revelation that Romania’s police have the right to requisition whatever they find relevant to the national history gives The Treasure a touch of thriller-like urgency. Given everything we’ve seen, the malignance of the state is a foregone conclusion.
Official corruption, though, is a broad comic target, and works that limit themselves to sending up bureaucratic trespasses run the risk of devolving into trite self-congratulation. Thankfully, Porumboiu escapes such pitfalls by grace of his observational acumen and comic confidence—few entertainers working in the realm of comedy appear to feel less pressure to make jokes. Rather, Porumboiu trusts his viewers’ senses of humor enough to simply show them potentially absurd situations developing in more or less real time. This comes to a head in the roughly half-hour long digging sequence, which begins in the daytime and carries on through the night.
Porumboiu has said that he chose to shoot The Treasure in digital—his first time shooting without film—because of this particular scene, and one can see why. While the earlier interior scenes have an almost Bressonian sparseness—all austere rooms and bare walls—DP Tudor Mircea’s camera richly captures the verdant tangle of the yard by day and gives the nocturnal moments a paranoid, vaguely noirish atmosphere. Like Keaton or Chaplin, Porumboiu draws humor from people using physical tools, namely the metal detectors, which cause quite a bit of confusion by themselves. For starters, one won’t stop going off, undermining its purpose, but also producing a humorously aggravating sound that resembles the bleating of a baleful mechanized animal. Breaking his earlier insistence on static frames, Porumboiu pans from side to side as his heroes scan the yard, a movement that quickly comes to emphasize the purgatorial repetitiveness of the endeavor. Repeated, meticulously symmetrical shots of the hole itself amount to a similarly deadpan metacinematic joke.
The film’s observational humor helps to fill out its characterization and thematic concerns. The blue-collar Cornel wields his tools with a certain loping grace, his metal detector searching the ground like an anteater’s nose. Adrian, who sports flowing hair and a slight, Polanski-like body, has the nervous entitlement of a deposed aristocrat. He bitterly outlines the history of his family’s estate, first a mansion, then a kindergarten, metals workshop, and seedy bar—located in Islaz, where an 1848 proclamation attempted to secure the country’s independence. Later, Costi complains that, “At 30 meters, we’ll reach the Roman Empire.” The project originated as a documentary, chronicling Porumboiu’s actual, unsuccessful search for interred booty (which involved both Adrian Purcarescu and Corneliu Cozmei), and it shows through in the lived-in detail of the ordeal and in the rigorous tracing of the land’s actual history. The house, tellingly, is now in shambles, possibly beyond repair.
For all the film’s focus on the Romanian story, however, The Treasure’s most significant gesture may lie in its sly subversion of the idea of national history (the significance of this notion to contemporary Europe may be easy for American viewers to overlook). The final revelation—better left buried for the purposes of this review—leads to an ironic coda, whose single, masterful movement is at once an inversion of the film’s subterranean momentum, a connection of history to the future, and a throwing up of hands. For its part, Laibach’s song swaps the positive vibes of the original for a brassy bombast that brings to mind authoritarian stridency as well as pirates. Its entrance might seem to come out of nowhere, but the tune is not so aesthetically out of place as one might initially believe. Let other artists teach us to treasure life. Treasuring is for treasure. And life is life.