Six years after receiving the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize for Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv), Corneliu Porumbiou returned to Cannes this year with The Treasure (Comoara). Telling the story of a blue-collar father who decides with his neighbour to go on a treasure hunt in an old historical garden, it has one of the most touching endings imaginable – a dream realised, a utopia. The Treasure postulates that even in the most ordinary of lives, it is possible to be something other than what one actually is, if there is determination. In presenting this strong idea, Porumboiu merges his trademark comic and social realist elements to sublime effect, making the film one of the most joyous experiences at Cannes. The core of the action is represented by the Toma family (father, mother and son), demonstrating how a well-structured family can push an individual to look for utopia in his everyday life. The following interview took place as part of a small-sized roundtable interview with Porumboiu at the festival.
What was the source of inspiration for The Treasure?
I wanted to make a documentary about a director friend, Adrian Purcarescu, who tried very hard to finish a film but did not succeed due to lack of financial resources. We worked together on the project but in the end I wasn’t satisfied with the result so I looked for another approach to directing. During that work process, Adrian told me about a local legend involving his great-grandfather. According to the story, he buried treasure in a garden before Romania was nationalised, which seemed to me like good material for a documentary. We hired a metal detection specialist and went to the garden for the movie and although we ultimately did not find the treasure, I realised that this quest made me aware of the great moments of the human lives that surround this family. I came to the conclusion that we could make something out of it so afterwards I started to write the script and tried to turn this experience into fiction.
From the start, [the main protagonist] Costi seems very rational, always searching for a specific reason to do anything, so he does not seem like somebody who would decide to search for treasure since that kind of pursuit requires some sort of craziness or even madness. What quality in him justifies his search for treasure?
Costi is in a certain type of equilibrium but is very fragile.I tried to show that he is not very comfortable with his life, such as in relation to his work, where he’s not doing well, sitting in an office but not really being very present while also having some moments of tension with his boss. Afterwards, we also see that he is not very happy in his relationship with his son; he wants to prove himself to his son and show that he is a hero. Costi considers himself a hero in relation to his child and wife and so cannot accept the failure of not finding treasure. I thought that these qualities could show that he is ready to take a risk. Furthermore, the more he hears about Adrian’s story, the more he feels part of it; he is swallowed up somehow by the history of the garden and its family. In sum, I wanted you to see in him a fragile character that seeks heroic action, somebody who is absorbed by the history, who needs to make an effort to escape.This is very different from Adrian’s motivation since he needs money from the start.
Why did you decide to have such an exaggerated happy ending?
It’s a certain type of happy ending. I wanted to have this happy ending but at the same time the music in the film offers a certain type of mood to the movie. It’s something that you might not forget easily, like a fascination with a life that you never lived or a goal you never achieved. At the end, I wanted to have some clouds, white clouds, like in the stories you know but it has been changed.
And how did you get the idea for that song to end the film? It is very memorable!
I liked it very much and after having it in the movie, I became obsessed with it and I listened to it a lot because it’s the final and the final is supposed to be like an old western, you know, like a march. I needed something to be imposed from outside and that was good.
So, you were thinking of westerns and adventure films when you directed this. What specific films inspired you?
For this, I re-watched Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But, I was more influenced by Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris.
Aside from the theme of adventure, there are some terrific comedic elements in the movie. Did you think of The Treasure as a comedy from the beginning?
Yes, I though of it from the beginning and I did this because with a documentary you have this pressure to be serious, but when I turned it into fiction then it was no longer necessary. In the first section of the movie when we show the office and home, I had a different directing approach in mind, but it changes when they enter the garden. With the use of long shots I convey the sense of being lost and the impact of being in a labyrinth. They look for treasure around a tree that’s been struck by lightning and search around in the dirt; I found these moments to be comic and absurd.
The movie centres on a family and the relationship between a father and his son. In the end, Costi distributes part of the treasure to the children, so I see it as being very different from western movies, which are very individualised. Was this idea of friendship and camaraderie part of your project?
Yes, I wanted to make something that speaks about camaraderie. So I wanted from the beginning for the treasure to be something that they could find together but not alone. And the ending can only have meaning if we take into account this aspect of camaraderie or the relationship between father and son. Here, the marginal position of the characters helped me a lot to show this feeling. I could provide more details about the heroes and create certain tension in the work.
In the movie, you also refer to some important moments in Romanian history, such as two moments of revolution. What is the function of history in your work?
I wanted to keep the movie very absurd in a way because the characters speak about two revolutions and at the same time you don’t know where you are now. However, my characters come from this history, though it is an absurd experience because in the end they find something German. I wanted to have this taste of absurdity. My stories are often based on real events but I always attempt to layer these little stories with history, which says something about certain features of our society. It is nonsense to think of somebody without history since we are historical products.
How does the idea of Robin Hood fit into the idea of finding a treasure itself?
The notion of property and its meaning is very essential in this movie; the garden of the house has changed property titles a couple of times during history, being a playground under communism and later a striptease bar after the revolution, before returning back to Adrian’s family. I see this as a specific form of violence against the Romanian people (the question of fights over land ownership). Robin Hood’s story is also a matter of property because he takes things from one person and gives them to another. It is a legend but he was somehow the first socialist. On the other hand, Robin Hood’s story was a driving force for this story. In the beginning, it was important that Costi is reading Robin Hood to his son. Robin Hood, a hero, was very different from Costi’s own life. It showed his moments with his son, and that they spent their evenings together. When I made a list of things that they could read together, Robin Hood came to mind quite easily, although it could also be fairy tales and ghost stories. In this process, the boy and his interaction with his father helped the story to move smoothly from one section to another; the final ending makes sense taking into consideration the meaning of the son’s relationship with his father and also with reference to the story of Robin Hood. You might better understand this if you take into consideration how important children are for Romanian families; people project too much onto them. Parents hope that their children will do better than them and achieve something more.
So the garden has something to say about the notion of property?
Indeed, the garden has a lot of properties and after that you see that they find something absurd in it, something from another guy. So I think it is a movie in which I was really interested in what property is, because we change things. The notion of change is so prevalent here. Your neighbour is coming one night to your home and he tells you a story and you take it seriously and you follow him. After a while you become more confident and try to discover more than the other the treasure. So I was filming what was to me was like little changes, a movement that applies to the notion of property.
What were the most difficult things for you when developing this script?
I like to change a lot when I write, which might impact things like casting and shooting. Improvisation is very important for me while working and I think that the final product of the film can only develop during the shoot. The most difficult thing for me was to find the right tone. Here, the script resembles the situations more but at one point I was afraid since I had a feeling that it goes a little bit into a certain type of caricature. In the past I made movies that related to body language but after that, I changed a lot and my movies became more a matter of tone. For this movie, I wondered about how I could find a more realistic tone, especially because of the result of searching for the treasure.
How was the experience of working with the actors in the movie?
We worked step by step with the actors and finally arrived at something satisfactory. For the role of Costi, I cast Cuzin Toma, a miner in real life. I also asked him to play with his real son and wife, a painter. He was very powerful in showing the free movement around the garden, hunting treasure. Adrian Purcarescu, played the second character, then for the role of the metal detecting specialist I used a non-professional actor, a former soldier named Corneliu Cozmei.
The movie could be divided into two parts, the first before entering the garden and the second after that point. Shots and counter shots are dominant in the first part of the movie, while there are many long shots in the second part of the movie.
In fact, for the first section, I used lots of shots and counter shots since they helped me to emphasise the interaction between the characters and their surrounding worlds. For the second part, the treasure hunt section in a rural area, most of the movie is in long shots and I focused more on Costi’s point of view. I wanted to have that because the garden and its function were essential in this section for me. I thought to myself that if you go too much into the storytelling then you would lose all spacing. For me the garden was like a labyrinth and I wanted to stay just with the treasure and this could happen if the viewers entered the garden with Costi and stayed with him. If I wanted to delve into the action I might have lost the garden and its character quality.
How was the experience of using digital for the first time?
It didn’t significantly impact my work because I have a precise routine and it is difficult now to change it because I learnt a particular way of filmmaking at school. In school we didn’t have much material and so I was formed in quite a strict way and I am always precise in what I do because we don’t have a lot of money to spend on shooting. It’s a type of economy that changes one’s way of making movies so going digital didn’t change too much in my way of making movies. Sometimes I’m quite afraid because I could really turn into a maniac, such as if I want a precise type of frame, but these are things that I have to handle myself. Mostly, however, I can say that I choose digital for aesthetic reasons. It helps me to control the light and make better use of the set. I tested digital with the night in order to know how the light would work in connection with the car and other sources. With digital, I also have more details on the back, which was very good. I could spend more time with the actors, which was very useful, especially for non-professionals like the child, Cornel, and Costi’s wife.
How do you situate your comedy work with Romanian cinema?
We have a big tradition in this type of film, which let’s say is more absurd or a certain type of comedy. I like a lot Chekhov’s stories and I used to read Kafka.
How do you feel about being at Cannes after so long? Do you think about expectations and prizes?
I haven’t been here for six years and one of my movies was not accepted. I never think of the prizes because itis very subjective. What is important for me right now is that the market and press knows about the movie. From a market perspective, it is very difficult to make Romanian movies in the Romanian language so it was very important for the movies to be seen and to be bought because we are living in a type of society that if you screw up one film then after that it is sometimes quite difficult to make another. That is right now the most important reason to be here, and then prizes come after that.
Are you interested in doing something more historical with your next project or do you prefer to work with the present?
My future work is something related to language. I like to work with the present and to play with these levels or what is behind. I am quite obsessed with the present.