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Digging for a buried treasure is perhaps the best metaphor to describe what it’s like to watch the movies of Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu: You have to scratch a lot beneath the surface, but in the end you’ll find something of lasting value.
His best work to date, Police, Adjective — which won the Un Certain Regard Prize in 2009 — is an extremely slow-burn thriller where the main action scene involves two men arguing over a dictionary. As dull as that may sound, the film is actually a gripping portrait of authority and obedience that speaks volumes about the legacy of Ceausescu’s 22-year dictatorship.
In his latest low-key tale, The Treasure (Comoara), Porumboiu takes the childhood fantasy of searching for hidden family jewels and turns it into something much more curious: a subtle adventure of thwarted ambitions and hidden dreams — not to mention a brief recap of Romania’s revolutionary past — where finding the loot takes as long onscreen as it does in real life. It’s not quite as powerful as Police, though more accessible than the director’s recent run of experimental narratives, and the ending will surely throw many viewers for a loop. But Treasure still confirms Porumboiu’s status as one of the more fascinating minds working in cinema today.
With his typically minimalist approach to storytelling, the writer-director uses a series of scaled-down scenes to introduce real estate worker, Costi (Cuzin Toma), who lives with his wife (Cristina Toma) and son (Nicodim Toma) in a modest Bucharest apartment. One evening, Costi’s neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), asks to borrow some money. When Costi refuses, Adrian explains that he needs the cash to rent an expensive metal detector, which he wants to use to locate a treasure supposedly buried in the garden of his dead grandfather’s country house.
After some thought and discussions with his wife, Costi decides to help out, agreeing to split the proceeds 50/50 and hiring a professional treasure hunter (Corneliu Cozemi) to assist in the search. It’s then that things get complicated: Not only is it exceptionally laborious to scan an acre of property for traces of metal, but it’s soon made clear that even if the two ultimately wind up finding something, the government may declare it as state property and keep the majority of the proceeds.
Never one to rush the viewer, Porumboiu takes us through the whole tedious process of detecting objects underground and trying to dig them up. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on sedatives, Costi’s quest is depicted in a highly mundane manner but still provides enough suspense to keep one guessing, while also delving into aspects of Romanian history related to Adrian’s family home — located nearby the site of pivotal events of the 1848 Wallachian liberal uprising. In some respects, digging the ground is a way for the two men to excavate their country’s troubled past.
Once Costi and Adrian uncover an object of potential value, Porumboiu takes the plot in some surprisingly literal directions, building to an upbeat finale that toes the line between reality and pure fairytale. It’s a twist that will definitely leave certain members of the audience either confused or let down, but it manages to address issues raised earlier on about Costi’s heroism in the eyes of his own son, while returning to the story of Robin Hood they read together in one of the first scenes.
Filmed in simple, static shots by DP Tudor Mircea (When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism), the action is reduced to lengthy deadpan sequences where things start off one way only to head someplace else, as clues are subtly revealed through dialog that often understates what’s happening. It’s a technique that keeps viewers at a safe distance while luring them in at the same time. In Porumboiu’s movies, what you see is never what you get, and there are riches to be had if you just keep looking.
Production companies: 42KM Film, Les Films du Worso, Rouge International
Cast: Cuzin Toma, Adrian Purcarescu, Corneliu Cozmei, Cristina Toma, Nicodim Toma
Director, screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
Producers: Marcela Ursu, Sylvie Pialat, Nadia Turincev, Julie Gayet
Director of photography: Tudor Mircea
Production designer: Mihaela Poenaru
Costume designer: Monica Florescu
Editor: Roxana Szel
Casting director: Bogdan Dumitrache
International sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 88 minutes
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