Cannes 2015. Day 9

Corneliu Porumboiu finds cinematic gold, and we get perhaps the last "new" Manoel de Oliveira film.
Daniel Kasman

The festival stretches its arms today and breaths a big sigh of relief: the Cannes Marché is ending, the business types fleeing the Palais des Festivals, the Croisette and Cannes, far away from any such shuddered utterances as "Apichatpong," "Hou," or "Porumboiu." God forbid! The festival thus empties out a bit, making queues shorter, the time one can sleep in the morning precious minutes longer. The suits are replaced by regular tourists, from cruises or from the country, and the town loses a bit of its charged, schizophrenic character with this exchange, because, let's admit, the commotion money brings with it is usually a spectacle to behold. And without the money, what is Cannes?

Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumbiou asks something related in The Treasure, one of the festival's best and a real pleasure in these last dwindling days. As slim, funny and diagrammed as a Hong Sang-soo comedy—something the director's last fiction feature, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, also strongly resembled—this little moral tale begins with that most heartbreaking of quotidian details of parenting: a child upset at his parent. Later, while Costi (Toma Cuzin) is reading his boy Robin Hood, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), a neighbor he doesn't really know, stops to ask to borrow money. When the neighbor finds out Costi isn't so well off himself—everyone has debts, unforgiving mortgages—he proposes something quite different: the two rent a metal detector and search for treasure Adrian's grandfather hinted at being buried in his old family home. What an opportunity, to do something a little generous, a little selfish, and maybe bring home some Robin Hood spoils to his young boy!

What follows in the meticulous fashion that the new Romanian cinema does so well (see Radu Muntean's One Floor Below, also in Un Certain Regard) includes the following: the excuses one uses to step away from work, how to rent a metal detector in Bucharest and what they cost, the time it takes to find something buried in the ground with not one but two detectors (and how those detectors work), the digging for treasure, an encounter with the police, and so on. Yet Porumboiu's approach is special, he has a tremendous knack for directing actors in his unobtrusive long takes so that the amount of dialog—and there is a lot, as so much of his cinema is about the nuances of social interactions, the awkwardnesses and pitfalls of conversations—and movement of his characters around the frame feels spontaneous and always surprising. And droll, very droll—this film is incredibly funny in a deadpan way, a sense of humor climaxing with a nearly twenty minutes sequence over to the slow, methodical combing of a backyard with two entirely different kinds of metal detectors, a sequence probably parodying the quotidian "realism" that makes the cinema of Porumboiu and his peers both notable and trendy. The persistent beeping of the detector and the pitch-perfect professionalism of the treasure-hunters' hired metal expert makes for a sequence with rhythmic repetitions that always refresh the laughter.

As is to be expected,The Treasure charges its bare scenario with deeper intimations: the ground the treasure is thought to be buried in is a veritable cross-section of the last two centuries of Romanian history, beginning with being located in the town where the 1848 Proclamation of Islaz was declared in an attempt to break away from Russian and Ottoman authorities. Later a site for brickworks and ironworks, then, after the Communists took over, not one but two bars (one being a strip club as well), the plot of land the duo are searching and digging in is literally full of the history of modern Romania. All of this history is true: Porumboiu heard about treasure in this house's yard, learned the history of the plot of land, and intended to make a documentary about it before deciding to fictionalize the scenario; in a way, his fictional characters are literally investigating reality. Further complicating their search is a law that if anyone finds treasure relevant to Romanian cultural history, it is to be confiscated with minor compensation by the government, in a way punishing those who desire to look into the past.

A minor key comedy in the motivations and attitude for digging up this history, the film is, on the one hand, constantly under pressure from our assumptions about how such stories go (who will be betray whom, what will they really find, what will the police do, who may die in the process) at the same time these pleasures of genre are being underscored by actual and allegorical questions of national development. What has Romania come through to reach this point, of these two men digging fervently in a small town's ramshackle garden to make their lives a little better? Who knows what they may find?

History came at us in Cannes in a far different and even more special way last night courtesy of Manoel de Oliveira. Upon this great master's death last month we learned he had an unseen film from 1981 that he did not want screened until after he died. Visit or Memoirs and Confessions is therefore in fact not an old film but a new one; how audacious it would have been to premiere it in competition! Instead, it was placed in Cannes Classics, the refuge for prestige restorations, mostly of very familiar, canonical favorites, and there it shone as something discrete and private shared as if among friends and colleagues.

It begins like an Alain Resnais film, a documentary proposed in voiceover as being speculative, asking of what are clearly documentary images questions akin to, "Isn't this how it was?" This documentary is a respectful, almost tip-toeing tour of Oliveira's house at the time, dating from the 1930s and owned by Oliveira from 1949 up until the shooting of the film. After an initial walkthrough, Oliveira admits to us he has had to sell the place to cover debts incurred, it is implied, by his dedication to making films. Among the many melancholies the film is suffuse with, perhaps this is the greatest: The director is filming something lost due to the very mode of expression he uses to record that thing. As if his house is being lost as it's being filmed, or, perhaps, the suggestion that once filmed, that thing becomes preserved in one way and lost in another, lost to time.

The camera travels on both tracks and handheld through the garden path past magnolia, pines and palms, and into the house, a woman and a man's voice on the soundtrack narrating an uncertain visit to a familiar and yet unfamiliar home. Their words, written by Agustina Bessa-Luís (author of several books Oliveira adapted into such film masterpieces as Francisca and Abraham's Valley), wander and wonder like they do, questioning the house and their movement through it, charged tentatively with recollections and fear. Through them, we get an expansive but somehow incomplete feel of the house's layout and atmosphere, as well as a catalog of Oliveira's belongings; it is perhaps this element above all, this kind of combination of realty tour and material observation, that feels like it prompted the director to keep the film private until now. Its pleasure in this lifestyle and the indiscretion of the camera is alleviated somewhat knowing the owner is no longer here to feel pride or abashment.

We encounter Oliveira, the director himself at age 73 (little did he know he was in his youth!), working in his little office in the corner where he wrote his famed tetralogy of frustrated love. He stands up and explains the history of the house, of himself, introduces photos of his children and grandchildren, and, turning on a 16mm projector, shows us several short "films" about the other houses in his family, about his childhood. He enumerates on the status of the house—which he wants to get registered as a part of Porto's historical heritage—his upbringing, a frightful but ultimately inconclusive encounter with the police under Salazar's rule, an introduction to his wife—who we see not in the house but out in her garden, and who speaks with surprising restraint about her long marriage—and eventually Oliveira speaks a direct, concise recitation of his fundamental feelings about women and men and where to find human goodness. Space and recitation, Oliveira's two great cinematic tools, here used to open his home and his life to the outside world.

Amidst our tour of a space, a home, we enter into storytelling, memories and history through the power of Oliveira's words and through the conjuration of moving and still images—the latter laid on top of Oliveira speaking or his wife gardening. My thoughts again turn to that master of the memory of architecture and the possibilities of recollection, Alain Resnais. As the phantom couple visiting the Oliveira home take their leave from the house and from the film, finally stepping into the frame in the dusk-darkened garden as if exiting a cinema, Bessa-Luís's text for them concludes that "we are not the house; the house is the world—our world." Here, at the end, we sense the home's greatest importance to Oliveira, that the house is a confluence of its material and the life that lives through it, a mise en abyme that speaks of the outside world that contains it and that we inhabit. It is certain, too, that this home is the cinema, a house of records and objects, friends and family, visitations, memories, and recollections. Something beautifully personal to the individual, but that glows all the more when shared with others.

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CannesCannes 2015Corneliu PorumboiuManoel de OliveiraFestival Coverage
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