As Corneliu Porumboiu was writing “The Treasure,” a debate was raging on in his home country of Romania regarding Roșia Montană, where Europe’s largest open-pit gold mine resides. A financial windfall awaited the mining company that had designs on extracting precious metals from the region, but many from different segments of Romanian society intervened, ranging from environmental activists to artists who wanted to protect the area’s archaeological and cultural cache, but the matter remains unresolved to this day. It was not an inspiration for the film Porumboiu would ultimately make, but it did tell him he was onto something.
“I said, okay, look, an entire country is talking about a treasure,” Porumboiu says with a laugh now. “Not just my characters.”
Whether intended or not, reflecting Romanian society in all its fragility is what Porumboiu has done since his feature debut “12:08 East of Bucharest” helped fuel a new wave of filmmakers from the country onto the international stage. Like that film, which saw the Ceausescu regime vivisected by a motley crew of talk show hosts, or his follow-up “Police, Adjective,” in which a victimless crime raises the question of how much the police have changed since the days of totalitarian rule, the writer/director has a light touch when it comes to addressing the past in “The Treasure,” the story of a man named Cristi (Toma Cuzin) whose neighbor (Adrian Purcarescu) finds himself in dire financial straits after his publishing house has gone under and offers to split the proceeds from a trove of riches he believes his great-grandfather buried in his garden before the communists came, if only he’ll help him unearth it.
Much of “The Treasure” is touched by some reality, right down to the professional metal detector (Corneliu Cozmei, exhibiting his real-life skills) that the two hire to help find the loot. Porumboiu also doesn’t bother changing the first name of Purcarescu for the character he plays in the film – it really was his great-grandfather who was said to have a treasure in a garden. Yet when Porumboiu himself heard this story, he was less interested in what was underneath the ground than with what occurred above it in the years after the fortune was said to have been buried, with the garden first established by Communists when Romania fell under Soviet control, then became a playground for a kindergarten that would eventually turn into a pharmacy, a drugstore and a bar.
While you never see these things in “The Treasure,” you can feel the weight of that history, even on the sly, slender thread that is its story. But for Porumboiu, the film also offers the opportunity to subvert another classic genre – in this case the adventure film – towards his own means. In alluding to “Robin Hood” as a bonding element between Cristi and his son and showing how serious the two men get when encountering such obstacles as whether they should report what they dig up to the police well before they get to the garden and the endless problems they have with their metal detector, the director elevates a comically mundane quest for gold into a search for transcendence, with its characters not so much driven by the idea of success than the fear of further failure. While Porumboiu was at the New York Film Festival, he spoke about the collaboration with Purcarescu that inspired the film, mixing reality and fiction and shooting his first film digitally.
How did you get interested in this story?
Adrian, a friend of mine who is an actor and director, started to shoot a movie more than 10 years ago with his own money and he never finished. He didn’t have money to complete it. So I said to him, “Okay, let’s try to do it together.” He had half of the movie edited, but there were sequences that were missing and he didn’t feel very comfortable with the material he had. So I knew the story from him — this legend — and I said to him, “Let’s try to go to the countryside and try to find a treasure.” He told me all these stories about this garden of his family, so we were there with a metal detector and we tried to find a treasure. At one point, [it felt like] we were trapped there, like it was a certain type of dark hole of history, so when I get back in Bucharest, I’m editing it, but I had the same feeling that [Adrian had before], so okay, I thought, I want to make it fiction to get out of here.
In what ways did the fiction grow out of what you already filmed?
It has a lot of elements in the beginning when they are searching – a lot of scenes until they start to dig. Cornel had the same problems with the metal detector. They were documentary in a way, so I rethought it and rewrote it.
What was it like to take these real people like Adrian and Corneliu, the metal detector and dramatize their experience?
From the beginning when I was writing the script, I knew Adrian would play the role because I really believe he’s a very good actor. After that, for Cornel, I wanted to cast a professional actor and I saw a few actors [for the part] and I told them, “Okay, I’m interested to have this character to have a certain type of body language.” For me, it was important that the machine is like a part of his body, so I asked Cornel to present [them each with] a detector and make them rehearse with the machines. I also gave the actors the documentary to show them and I expected them to have a different type of approach, but at one point, I said to Cornel, “Do you want to try out [for the part]?” I gave him part of the script and he told me very simply, “Okay, it’s very easy for me to do that because I’m answering questions all the time that other people are asking me.” [laughs] So it was his brilliant observation and I cast him.
You’ve also said Toma Cuzin, who plays Costi, really personally inspired how that character developed.
For Costi, I fictionalized this character when I was writing the script — I had the script all done, but Costi was something else because I know the actor and his family and I chose to cast his [real life] son and his wife too because there is a certain type of energy between them that I like a lot. With the son, he has blond hair [to contrast with] Costi’s dark hair, which fit very well into my story.
Was the idea of what one generation passes down to another something that was of interest from the start? Besides the treasure, you have the father-son relationship.
Yeah, I think because in Romanian culture, children have a very big importance. All these generations put a lot of hope into their kids. They have things they don’t accomplish in their own life, so they hope for their kids that they’ll do better, you know? Even when I was working on the casting, I would see children that would come in and then they would go [on their way[ to swim or they’d have English lessons, so there is something very cultural about that.
That’s why in the beginning, I wanted to have a scene with a father reading a story to his son because he’s trying to give him a special type of education. After that, I arrived [that story should be] “Robin Hood” because of course, it’s a story about property — what is property and how things are changing — and it fits very well into the whole story.
I’ve heard you say that you wanted a natural flow to the movement of the film, both in its structure and visually. Why was that important for you on this?
Of course, this is very important because I was thinking of the movie’s lighting in terms of the difference between artificial light and the sun. Because there’s this fascination with gold, in a way it’s like the sun is buried in the ground, so with the lighting, it was important to have an artificial feel in the beginning and there’s a transition to sunlight. I’m also obsessed by the framing and composition.
I’ve always loved your long takes – because you made the transition to digital on this, did that push the limits since you didn’t have to worry about film running out?
It was easier in a way because I had kids and I didn’t have so much pressure, but I tried on digital and 35 [before shooting] and on digital, I liked the texture more. I actually chose it for artistic reasons. It didn’t make so much [difference]. From [film] school, I was formed in a way where I was quite warm to films, but [on this film] when I tried both of them and for me, I chose digital for the look that I wanted.
What’s it been like to travel with the film?
It’s great because the film is very well-received. For eastern countries, they like the film very much because it’s like daily life and in these ex-communist countries, they’re all dealing with the property. And in [America] and France, they appreciate it more for the type of humor in a more cognitive way. So they’re different, but it’s been great.
“The Treasure” opens on January 8 in Los Angeles at the Royal Theater and in New York at the IFC Center. It will also be available on demand.