CORNELIU PORUMBOIU with Daniel Fairfax
With his films Police, Adjective (2009) and Metabolism, or When Evening Falls on Bucharest (2013), Corneliu Porumboiu has established himself as one of the preeminent members of the Romanian New Wave, a cinema movement that is still bearing fruit a decade after coming to the attention of international audiences. His latest film, The Treasure, comes to New York after premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. With Porumboiu’s typically wry, deadpan sensibility, The Treasure laconically recounts the efforts of two mild-mannered men, Costi and Adrian, to unearth a treasure trove purportedly buried by the latter’s grandfather in his backyard before the communist takeover in 1947, and the duo spend a large portion of the film shuffling back and forth among the garden’s overgrown weeds, metal detector in hand.
Daniel Fairfax (Rail): I wanted to start by asking you about the motif of the metal detector in The Treasure. Your films often revolve around questions concerning the cinema itself. So I was wondering if the metal detector could, in a way, be read as a metaphor for the cinema? In particular, the metal detector allows us to see things lying underneath the surface. Is that what interested you about this idea?
Corneliu Porumboiu: Not only that, but Corneliu Cozmei—the guy who owns the metal detector—has the same name as me. So this character was connected to me. It was a clin d’il to the cinema.
Rail: You were shooting on digital for the first time. Similarly, in the film, the characters trade in their old detector for a newer machine, capable of plumbing much deeper below the surface. Was this also a nod to your own filmmaking?
Porumboiu: Yes, because the cinema is also a very practical thing. Sometimes I’m afraid about not being very technically up-to-date.
Rail: There are a lot of references to Romanian history in the film: the revolutions of 1848, 1947, 1989, the German occupation in World War II, and its more recent integration into the E.U. The house itself is symbolic of this: going from being the country house of a wealthy citizen, to a kindergarten under communism, and then a strip club in the 1990s, before being left to abandonment.
Porumboiu: The starting point of the film, for me, was the house where the treasure is buried. I’m really interested in questions of property. The ownership of the house has changed so much over the years, through wars and revolutions, but the object itself remains the same; it is stable, fixed. Then there is the final scene with the children in the playground. Here, another circle is starting. While shooting The Treasure I kept this idea of a circular movement in mind. The film is structured as a chain of events unfolding out of one another.
Rail: In that sense, what does the pan up to the sky at the end signify?
Porumboiu: In a way, I think it connects the “gold” of the treasure with the sun. The treasure was buried in mud, but now it is out in the open air. So it connects us with a certain type of liberty. I think that it’s a happy ending, but then again, with the death metal music playing over the top of that scene, I’m not so sure.
Rail: The Treasure deals very directly with economic matters, and particularly the financial hardship faced by the main characters. Can you talk about the present economic and social situation in Romania?
Porumboiu: The crisis hit Romania very hard, as it did other countries. Today, the crisis is everywhere. I actually used to study business management at one point, but I gave it up. If I had been any good at my studies, I would be making money on Wall Street now. Instead, I’m making films in Romania about the crisis.
I hope that things will get better, but you never know. We’re seeing political radicalization everywhere. To be honest, I’m not very optimistic. In Greece, things are very hard. In Romania the problem was that after the revolution in 1989 we made a transition to a form of wild capitalism, and since that point it has never had the time to settle down.
When we were shooting in the garden, I had the striking feeling that we were simply lost. That all the characters, all the crew, were in a giant hole. The shoot was very fun in the beginning because it was happening for real. Corneliu didn’t know the machines very well, and we didn’t know what we were looking for. But after that it was quite sad. So I had this feeling that we were all lost and that I had to do something to get out of there.
Rail: Romanian cinema has burst onto the international scene in the last few years, with you, and with filmmakers like Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean, and Cristi Puiu. What is your relation to the other filmmakers of the Romanian New Wave? Do you see yourselves as a close-knit group?
Porumboiu: I talk to a few of them; I talk to Cristi Puiu, for example. I saw Radu Jude’s latest film, Aferim!, and sometimes we give each other our scripts to read. The same with Radu Muntean: we saw each other’s films and talked about them briefly. I see Cristian Mungiu every morning because our kids go to the same school, but we hardly ever talk about the cinema.
Rail: What were the origins of the Romanian New Wave? Did you all go to the same film school?
Porumboiu: Almost all of us went to film school in Bucharest, but the first film from the new generation that put Romanian cinema on the map was Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which screened at Cannes in 2005, exactly ten years ago. Cristi was the only one of us who went to school abroad. He was working with the writer Răzvan Rădulescu at that time, who doesn’t have a background in cinema studies, but who has written the screenplays of a lot of our films.
Rail: What is the present state of film financing in Romania?
Porumboiu: At present we only have one source of financing, which is the Romanian CNC (National Center for Cinematography). Its budget comes from a percentage of advertising revenue. A lot of advertising firms have reduced their budgets, so the CNC’s budget has also gotten smaller. But at the same time the CNC is quite stable, and we can make films. But you also need money from abroad. This is how I finance my films.
One difference is that in the 1990s, a lot of American and Western European movies and TV series shot in Romania, but now they tend to go to Bulgaria or other countries. These movies prepared the technicians for our films. I could get away with not paying my crew on my first film because they were receiving money on other film shoots. But that is no longer the case.
Rail: What about the audience? Do your films find an audience in Romania?
Porumboiu: With the audience it’s another question. During the communist era we had theaters downtown. After the revolution, in the 1990s, they closed down. Now we have multiplexes. So you now have a generation that is twenty years old, and all they want to see is blockbusters. But the people who used to see films—the people who are my age, forty or fifty—haven’t come back to the cinemas. All the same, it’s good that people are going to see blockbusters, because there is the chance that they will then go to see Romanian movies. I think there are about 100 screens in Romania. Which is nothing for a country of twenty million people.
Rail: Have things changed for you since Police, Adjective? Internationally there has been a lot of interest in your work, and in Romanian New Wave cinema. Is that reflected in Romania itself?
Porumboiu: It’s quite hard. The best numbers so far have been for Child’s Pose by Călin Peter Netzer, which sold about 100,000 tickets, and recently Aferim! has been doing very well, as well as Tudor Giurgiu’s movie, Why Me?.
Rail: Your film won the “Un certain talent” prize at this year’s “Un certain regard” section in Cannes.
Porumboiu: I never think about prizes. Prizes are a convention. They’re arbitrary: you don’t know the juries, you don’t know the movies. At Cannes there are a few good movies every year. I never think about prizes. The funny thing is that I still win them, and they will help the movie, in terms of sales. I don’t travel to festivals as much as I used to. I already have another subject for a film, so if I spend all my time promoting the current movie, when will I have the time to write my new one? After Police, Adjective I traveled with the film for a year and a half, and then I made Metabolism. I already have another subject now, and I’m starting to write. It’s important to make the next film. But I may have to do a few interviews for this film if I’m asked to.
Rail: There’s a motto in the film: “work, don’t think.” Does this relate to your own attitude?
Porumboiu: Sometimes! It does right now. There were three years between my first and second films, four years between my second and third. After Police, Adjective I tried to write a script, but it resembled that film too much, so I put it aside. Now I’m going back to that subject.
Rail: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the absurdist humor that pervades all of your films.
Porumboiu: I think all of my characters are very serious, like I am. But they turn out to be absurd. It’s just the way it comes out, the way I choose my stories. It’s also something cultural, it’s very Romanian.
Rail: Your sense of humor reminds me a lot of the U.S. sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, by Larry David. Was this an influence on you, by any chance?
Porumboiu: I’ve never heard about that show—but one sitcom I do really love is Seinfeld!
The Treasure screens at the 53rd New York Film Festival on October 8 and 9.
DANIEL FAIRFAX is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University and an editor of the online film journal Senses of Cinema.