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A Historical Background: An Interview with Corneliu Porumboiu

Talking to the Romanian New Wave director about his prize-winning "The Treasure".
Although Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumbiou's The Treasure showed late in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, its winning simplicity and droll humor made it stand out as a festival favorite. 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—Adrian proposes something quite different: the Costi puts up the money to rent a metal detector so that they can 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 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, how to discuss your suspicious activities 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 the 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 minute sequence over to the slow, methodical combing of a backyard with two entirely different kinds of metal detectors, perhaps parodying the everyday "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 Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei) 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, a school, and, 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, effectively 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?
***
At the festival, I had the chance to discuss the film with its director, Corneliu Porumboiu. Special thanks to Chiara Marañón.


Corneliu Porumboiu. Photo by Quentin Carbonell.
NOTEBOOK: Was the idea of buried treasure your original inspiration?
CORNELIU PORUMBOIU: Yes, I have a friend who told me this story: that in his village his grandparents buried a treasure before the Communists came to power. So we went there to search for treasure: I wanted to do a documentary. We asked someone with a metal detector to come with us but after that I saw the material, I had the feeling we were lost out there. We didn’t find anything, so I said, “okay, I want to make a fiction film out of it.”
NOTEBOOK: So when you went to this house for the first time, you were actually shooting for a documentary, it wasn’t just preparation?
PORUMBOIU: Yes, and there I discovered the story of the house, how it passed from his family, becoming a kindergarten, a pharmacy. After the revolution it was a strip bar, all these things, you know?
NOTEBOOK: All the history that’s in the film about that plot of land and that house, that’s actually true of that plot of land and that house?
PORUMBOIU: Yes. I was fascinated with how you may have access to something, like this house, but there may also be so many things before it. Even in the original documentary it was interesting because the guy with the tools, he was trying to find something hidden, no?
NOTEBOOK: Approaching the screenplay, did you feel you had to build a sort of fictional story around this location, this idea of a history buried in this place?
PORUMBOIU: Yes. When I saw the documentary I had a very strange reaction. I had the feeling that we were all—because I was playing in it, as well—in a certain type of dark hole, you know? And that we had to get out of there! I had this feeling and I started to write with this in my mind.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that your visit to this location that is so charged, so full of history…
PORUMBOIU: ...I was overwhelmed, at one point. All these lives, all these people who lived there.
NOTEBOOK: Was fictionalizing it a way that let you step out of that, that let you clear the light and understand a bit better?
PORUMBOIU: Maybe. To take myself out of this, but at the same time to capture it.
NOTEBOOK: Why isn’t your film the story of the owner of the house? Why is it rather about an outsider to the history?
PORUMBOIU: I didn’t think about it too much, I did it instinctively, in a way. But I think it was also my position to this story. Something from outside, you know?
NOTEBOOK: Because you were also outside of this story when you visited the house originally.
PORUMBOIU: Yes, I feel this way.
NOTEBOOK: Your participation in the story makes me think that all the emphasis on metal detection, the two kinds of metal detectors...it’s almost like filmmaking in a way. Searching for things.
PORUMBOIU: I was also thinking like that. Also, there were these funny moments in the documentary how the man with the metal detector didn’t know how to use the first machine. In the end, I decided to cast this guy for this film.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of him not knowing how to use his own machine, I found The Treasure, like When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, very funny.
PORUMBOIU: Ah, is good!
NOTEBOOK: I was wondering what makes you laugh. What do you find funny while making films?
PORUMBOIU: I think it’s a process by its own, a certain type of liberty. At the same time, it’s what I like to do. I'm like my characters, in a way, because I'm very serious, no? And my characters are all the time very serious. It’s a certain kind of suit to wear. I’ve spoken before about Buster Keaton, this type [mimes deadpan]. All my characters, they have this.
NOTEBOOK: Not only Keaton, but also because your films are so dialogue-based, I think of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, comedies of awkwardness where people don’t know how to handle social situations. In The Treasure, the expectation of how fast the metal detection will take creates an impatience and an awkwardness which is very funny.
PORUMBOIU: I agree. I love Seinfeld, I used to watch it when it was on television.
NOTEBOOK: In these long takes of dialogue, how do you approach working with your actors blocking the scene? I don’t understand Romanian, but I feel like when one thinks of long take filmmaking or long, scripted dialogue scenes, the results are very formal, very unnatural. Yet in your films the opposite is the case, all social interactions unfold without seeming being staged.
PORUMBOIU: I did not do a lot of rehearsals before, because I had nonprofessional actors and I was afraid a little bit. Keeping in mind the trajectory of the characters, it was a matter of natural lighting and sound. Afterwards, I change from take to take. I even take away dialogue, change some lines. Little things.
NOTEBOOK: It starts very scripted, but it evolves on set?
PORUMBOIU: Yes, all the time.
NOTEBOOK: How does that impact working with professional and nonprofessional actors?
PORUMBOIU: Usually I’m changing the script even at the casting stage. If I have an actor that I like, if he brings me something new, I try to re-write some scenes. In The Treasure, when the father is teaching his son how to fight, how to defend himself at school, that was a situation that was real at one point for the man. Things like that I change after I write the script, after the casting. I don’t have a method, you know? For Adrian and Costi we speak a lot about the characters before, with Cornel, no, I was more into working on the situation: you do that, you do that, you do that. Sometimes he helped me out, changed a lot of small things.
NOTEBOOK: I understand that the family in the film is actually a family in real life, the woman and child is the protagonist’s wife and son.
PORUMBOIU: Yes.
NOTEBOOK: I didn’t know that going into the movie, but while watching it I was very struck by their chemistry between all three. It was incredibly real. Before I read they were in fact a family I was going to ask you how you achieved that chemistry, but I guess this is almost like a documentary? You see the husband and wife sit down next to each other and it’s quite clear they are together.
PORUMBOIU: I like that, and I liked that when I cast Toma Cuzin, I knew his family. I like all of them. In a way, the wife is very stable...non-verbal things, you know? The kid and the difference between them, he’s a little bit blonde-haired, he has this mature face...and Cuzin you could see he has had a certain type of experience. In fact, I saw all three of them at one point: I was with my wife in a museum and my wife tells me, "you have to try Cuzin for the role," and I said, “yeah he’s not a bad idea,” because I saw all of them together. I like this aspect very much.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you want to start the story with this little anecdote in the car, with the young son chastising his father for being late?
PORUMBOIU: That came later, I put it there. I took out from the beginning a few scenes. Afterwards, in the editing, I found it gave something like...in a way, the kid in the scene, he’s quite mature, you know? His point of view. After that, you get a history, a story that is written, you trust it, but it’s a story that when it’s happening, it’s not happening. The boy brings this quiet, mature point of view.
NOTEBOOK: I thought it also set up the following story as a narrative about the father having to make up something, something ineffable, to his boy.
PORUMBOIU: Yes, all the time, to live up to him.
NOTEBOOK: Where did the idea come to intercede or break your style with these insert shots of the Robin Hood book, the calculator, and so on?
PORUMBOIU: It’s a certain kind of chapters. Also, because this movie is around this property and things that are changing, things that are passing from people to people. It is also the imaginary aspect of everything, even the “money” that they find, everything has an aspect of the imaginary.
NOTEBOOK: One could describe this movie, eliminating details of the history of a plot of land, and it seems very abstract, almost just a genre film. But instead, this plot of land is the center, the importance of the film. I’m wondering if the narrative that surrounds it is a sort of excuse to talk about this thing, or if you think the fictional story and the documentary story, let’s say, need each other?
PORUMBOIU: I think we need fiction. If I were able, I’d do this in a documentary. It’s my way of expressing all these things. But at the same time, in this movie, I wanted to have a historical background. But you don’t really understand what it is because they are speaking about the revolution—two revolutions—about the war of independence: and it’s all mixed. I wanted to have this certain dimension of history. It’s like a background, all the time. I think it’s more like a point of view about history than about trying to clarify something.
NOTEBOOK: Are enough people in Romania "digging up the past," looking hard enough at recent history?
PORUMBOIU: No! I think in our culture it’s a problem. It’s a culture that is living in the present and didn’t clarify—from my point of view—many things in the past. In this film, if they are not explicit in a way, they were born out of things, no? It’s a cultural dimension.
NOTEBOOK: It might be tempting to make films purely about those buried things, like, for example, the documentary project that turned into The Treasure. Is it equally fulfilling for you to touch the two things at once, be a little about history but also about something less political, less national, more human?
PORUMBOIU: For this film, I was thinking more in this type of relationship of the family. The relationship with the son. And also a certain type of...solidarity which is coming out of these characters. From the beginning, I wanted to make something like an adventure, you know?
NOTEBOOK: One of the things I liked particularly about the film was that I had continual expectations for everything to go really badly. There would be no treasure; someone would end up in jail or dead—but then the ending is very beautiful. Was the ambiguity of the ending something you always wanted to do? It's very open...
PORUMBOIU: ...it will continue. Yeah, I wanted to, all the time things are changing and in the beginning the script was more violent, with the kids in that scene at the end. Now, the way that I chose to shoot it, with the [big] camera movement and all, it covers a lot of things like that, it shows a certain fascination for the sun...yet something that will continue and go on in this way.
NOTEBOOK: That final shot ending in the sun ends with a tremendous soundtrack choice. Can you tell me about how you chose this stunning song at the end of the film, Laibach's "Opus Day (Life is Life)"? It’s clearly the song of the festival, everyone is singing it.
PORUMBOIU: [laughs] Yes. I knew this song, I like it very much, the words are very good, and I needed something at the end like a march. In a way, when I made this movie I was thinking of Westerns. How, in recent history, we don’t conquer a new land any more, in fact throughout history we often re-conquer the same land, you know? I was thinking of this when I was writing the script. So in the beginning I needed something like in a Western, with a march. I like the song so much. It helps me even for the characters, the way I choose for them to play. I was listening to it a lot before shooting, and it has a certain tone that I wanted the ending to have.
Photo by Quentin Carbonell

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