The process of examination is central to the work of Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, and his latest feature film, “The Treasure” (which just premiered at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section), serves as proof that the fascination hasn’t run dry. Just as “12:08 East of Bucharest” examined a specific moment in Romania’s collective memory, and “Police, Adjective” focused on language itself as a tool of oppression, the latest film literally zeroes in on a piece of land combed (and then combed again) in a goofy treasure hunt.
Just as in another screen fable of greed, luck and unexpected obstacles—Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”—the impulse here to look for the hidden riches is less romantic than economical: the main characters are struggling to survive in contemporary, recession-stricken Romania. When Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) approaches his neighbor Costi (Cuzin Toma) about the idea to look for a chest his grandfather buried during World War II, the scheme seems like something straight off the pages of “Robin Hood,” read by Cosi every night to his young son. Once the two men hire a standoffish Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei) to scan the designated area with his metal detector, the movie turns into a funny, purposefully grueling slapstick comedy of three guys stuck in a field, all set on what seems like a wild goose chase—complete with many a satirical jab at Romanian bureaucracy.
As evidenced by his previous, unsuccessful feature, “When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism,” Porumboiu is a highly self-conscious director, very much aware of the moral and aesthetic implications of every single cut and each camera movement he employs. Here, the repeated image of the metal detector’s head hovering over the ground, as well as the sound the machine emits (with carefully crafted comical results), serves as a metaphor of the director’s search for meaning, which was also at the center of “Metabolism”—in this sense, this is a work as self-reflexive as the previous film. In his quest to combine intellectual inquiry with classical narrative, Porumboiu is also becoming more and more fond of semi-scientific inserts that provide an analytical touch not unlike something we could find in a PBS documentary (grammatical chart in “Police,” medical footage of a the inside of an intestine in “Metabolism,” geological chart in “The Treasure”).
More than any other Romanian director (with the possible exception of documentarian Andrei Ujică), Porumboiu is obsessed with his country’s past. Just as in his recent foray into documentary, “The Second Half” (consisting entirely of a footage of a 1988 soccer game, supplied with a new commentary), there is a sense in “The Treasure” that the filmmaker’s task is to dig patiently and examine artifacts of the past. In its last ten minutes, the film transforms itself into an ironic, near-magical fable, and the final shot may count as the most conspicuous and conventional decision Porumboiu ever made, but still he remains one of the key players in the New Romanian Cinema movement, and I am glad to see him back in form.