The Treasure

The Treasure, the fiction film Corneliu Porumboiu made between two splendid documentaries, The Second Game and Infinite Football, begins with an image of paternal anxiety that would be at home in either of the latter films. Seated at the back of a car, Alin (Nicodim Toma) is upset that his father Costi (Toma Cuzin), offscreen, was late to pick him up from school. Costi replies that he wasn’t late, merely hiding, and that Robin Hood is never late. Alin doesn’t buy it, and tells Costi he isn’t Robin Hood. This offhand exchange, which has little to do with the plot of the film, functions as a kind of primal wound in the father-son relationship that Costi will attempt to mend. A little further, when he learns that Alin is being bullied by a classmate at school, Costi kneels down to teach his son how to handle it. In a tender bit of education, he instructs Alin to push the bully away and scream, but not to hit him. Later in the film, Costi chides his wife for letting Alin know he’s out looking for a treasure because it will set him up for disappointment. Among the numerous pleasures The Treasure offers is an endearing but unsentimental image of a father who judges himself through the eyes of his son.

Like all Porumboiu protagonists, Costi is a functionary. He is responsible for resolving land disputes, for authorizing private property. Costi is a straight shooter, he cannot lie. When his unemployed neighbour, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), shows up at night asking for a large sum of money, Costi turns him down, giving a clear account of his situation. Unwilling to let go of Costi, Adrian tells him that his great grandfather had buried a treasure in their ancestral house before the communists took over, and that if Costi helped him hire a metal detector to fish it out, he’d share half of whatever they find. Skipping his bill payments, Costi arranges for the sum of money. The two set out on a Saturday to Adrian’s country home, where they’re joined by Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), the metal detector guy. Working with two devices whose operation they can’t entirely trust, the trio scans the length of the garden and zeroes in on a spot. After a protracted quarrel with the impatient Adrian, Cornel drives away, leaving the neighbours to dig alone.

With its simple premise and single line of thought, The Treasure resembles a short story. Like Police, Adjective, the film is a procedural that emphasizes the duller, everyday facets of the treasure hunting process. Costi slips away from the office in the afternoon to go look for metal detectors. He discusses pricing and timing with a small agency, but finds Cornel at the exit willing to do it at a cheaper rate. Back at office, his boss confronts him about his afternoon absence, and Costi tells him the truth. Incredulous, the boss is convinced Costi’s having an affair. A considerable part of The Treasure finds the three men walking like zen monks in the garden, hoping that the detector reveals something. There’s a significant presence of technology in the film in the form of various electronic devices but also as numbers and charts. The men’s faith that these figures will announce good news resembles something like a superstition.

The Treasure is set against the backdrop of contemporary Bucharest—its problems of unemployment, mortgage pressures and wealth inequality—but is essentially a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale because it’s set against these harsh realities. Rendering Costi as a sympathetic man in financial distress, Porumbiou pegs the film as a rags-to-riches narrative of individual success, prompting the viewer to cheer for the man in his treasure hunt. Costi, for his part, does everything he can to spoil this: he tells pretty much everyone around him what he’s up to, the villagers around the country house turn nosy, and even the police get a whiff of it. But none of it hinders their project; true to template, they discover a treasure. Porumbiou, however, concocts an ending that pulls the rug from underneath us, turning the fairy tale’s ideology inside out. More precisely, the ending displaces the film from one fairy tale to another. We realize then that the film’s focal point was somewhere else, that the listener the story is being recited for isn’t us but Alin.

The Treasure explains this shift in historical terms. The three men are looking for a treasure buried in a land that may have been under dispute during the 1848 revolution in which, we are told, sons of landlords redistributed their elders’ property. Adrian believes the treasure itself was buried in the 20th century, before the communists’ time. It turns out it wasn’t; it was buried during the communist regime. The ancestral home was a school under the communists, became a bar after the 1989 revolution and came back to Adrian in 1998. As the men dig, they find evidence of the site being used as a brick-producing site and later a steel mill. Like Alex Gerbaulet’s Shift, The Treasure reframes the story of the present through several levels of history buried underneath. As the men excavate the history of Romania layer by layer, they discover constantly changing definitions of wealth and crime: from private property being theft to its infringement defining theft. In doing so, The Treasure imagines fairy tales as negations of the social conditions producing them. Robin Hood can flourish only in a greatly inequal society. What did communist kids dream about? Stock markets, probably.


Dreams of escape is what Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation begins with too. Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a surgeon, imagines a better life in the West for his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguș), who needs to perform well in her high-school examinations if she is to get a scholarship to Cambridge. A day before the exams, she is assaulted on way to school apparently by a convict on the lam. Eliza is understandably traumatized and doesn’t perform as well as she should’ve in the first exam. Fearing this might ruin his plans for her, Romeo arranges for her next evaluation to be rigged against the wishes of his bedridden wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar). In this, he is aided by a chief inspector, a deputy mayor and an educational officer, all four trading favours with each other.

Graduation opens with a shot of someone digging outside Romeo’s apartment complex in broad daylight. It’s an image that’ll appear one more time, but one that won’t be explained. Similarly, we aren’t told who is it that’s throwing stones at Romeo’s windows. Romeo simply accepts these events and is convinced of the deep rot afflicting the world around him. A potentially damning bit of information about Eliza’s boyfriend at the scene of the assault is also left hanging, even by Eliza whom it concerns the most. Romeo is having an affair with an administrator at Eliza’s school, a fact that the long-suffering Magda knows about, but doesn’t bring up. Everybody in Graduation is ethically compromised—there’s no moral centre to the film—because that is the only way to cope with things around here.

When Magda doesn’t agree with Romeo rigging the exam results, he reminds her of their own broken aspirations. They had decided to return to Romania after the revolution, but things haven’t changed as they wished. He tells Magda that Eliza, having had a cocooned upbringing, won’t be able to handle with the sordid realities of the country and must do what they couldn’t. Romeo repeatedly asserts, spelling out the film’s anti-moral, that sometimes the results are more important that the means. In exchange for favourable exam results, Romeo prioritizes the deputy mayor, who put Romeo in touch with the education officer, for a liver transplant. It doesn’t seem like anyone is losing out by Romeo’s bypassing of the transplant waiting list, just as it seems no one is really affected if Eliza’s score is fudged. But, of course, someone is.

What Graduation continuously points out is Romeo’s willing blindness to things. He believes that Eliza wouldn’t have been assaulted had the police done their job properly, but who’s to say that the convict’s escape wasn’t one of these ‘harmless’ arrangements? He complains about corruption and stagnation, but dodges draft and thrives as a surgeon thanks to these very elements. The institutions the film revolves around—police, hospital, school, town hall—aren’t pictured as Kafkaesque labyrinths but intimate spaces made or broken by individuals in it—something like a family, which is here a tainted institution too. Romeo exploits and benefits from due process not being followed in these institutions. His downfall comes when people, for once, start doing the right things: the investigation bureau decides to examine the deputy-mayor’s dealings, the police sniffs out Romeo’s arrangement, Eliza refuses to follow his instructions and loses faith in him.

Like in an art film of the seventies, Mungiu takes considerable pleasure in charting the downfall of respectable middle-class Romania. Romeo’s sealed-off existence is hinted at from the very first scene, where it’s pierced by a stone hurled at his window. The doctor spends rest of the film trying to fix this hole, literally and symbolically. Mungiu composes several indoor shots with windows visible in the background, the opening scene having prepared us to expect them to shatter any moment. This sense of fragility and pervasive dread—peaking in a late scene in which Romeo wanders a shady neighbourhood pursuing Eliza’s assaulter, only to struggle to get away from the location—is counterbalanced by the rather affectionate portrayal of the father-daughter relationship. I was reminded of Ozu throughout Graduation, with its long shots of Romeo peeling fruits, changing shirts or just sitting in wait of his daughter’s imminent departure. The pain of generational shift is brought into focus through the figure of Romeo’s ailing mother, who doesn’t want Eliza to leave Romania. That Eliza is the one who saves her grandmother in one scene, when Romeo is at his lover’s place, reinforces the film’s implicit theme of the necessity to own up to the past.