The Treasure Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: comedy, folktale
Others: Police Adjective

There’s a short moment in Corneliu Porumboiu’s newest film The Treasure in which Raluca (Cristina Cuzina Toma), the wife of protagonist Costi (Toma Cuzin), watches a heated political debate on television, the topic of which is the extraction of natural resources from the earth. This moment accounts for probably less than a minute of the film’s run time and is seemingly irrelevant to its narrative arc, yet it sets up a tension between the population and the government that continues until the film’s transformative final scenes. The major issue of the debate is the strain on the soil that the extraction of certain resources has caused, leaving crop fields permanently infertile. When this topic enters the film via this lower-middle-class family’s living room, Costi has just agreed to help his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), with the cash to hire a metal detector to find some riches which may or may not have been buried in the backyard of Adrian’s great-grandfather’s house before it was seized by the government in its 1947 communist overthrow. Keeping something buried in the earth is, according to this narrative, a way of protecting one’s ownership of it, so it’s unsurprising that resource extraction, ostensibly performed to further capitalistic endeavors, is presented as a controversy of government power.

This is all exemplary of the foremost delight of Porumboiu’s films. They appear so simple, to present their conflict squarely from the beginning, yet as the story progresses, the narrative is complicated almost imperceptibly. Many of the obstacles keeping Costi from his search for treasure spring so naturally out of urban life under capitalism: he needs to visit the office where he may hire a professional to help look for the treasure before it closes at four, but he works until five; finding the money necessary for his plan proves difficult, as those he asks are reluctant to help because of the potential fruitlessness of the search. When he does get to the office by faking a work-related field trip, he is told the high price of the service, and a government stipulation that any and all recovered buried treasure must be examined by a local museum to determine its value for the Romanian national heritage. If it’s determined significant, the government keeps it and its finder is awarded 30% of its value.

When their search begins, the metal detector picks up traces of iron in the soil in many areas of the garden. Adrian reveals that the location was once used for a blacksmith’s shop, and the hunt for treasure takes on an additional meaning. In their hunt for treasure, the three men inadvertently wade backward through the history of the location, characterizing earth in connection with the population, as it changes to internalize human presence over time.

Once Costi and Adrian start digging, though, is when Porumboiu’s political statement really kicks in. Circling back to the television debate mentioned above, Costi and Adrian perform their own act of “extraction,” yet it’s end contributes more towards a common wealth than to capital. The treasure they find is somewhat of an unprecedented miracle, over 100 German stocks in luxury car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz. The stocks — issued in 1969, most likely buried by members of the communist government — split evenly give them each over 1,000,000 euros and have no chance of being determined culturally significant to Romania as they were issued in Germany. When Costi brings home his share of the findings, his son — ecstatic at the prospect of his father digging up buried treasure — is disappointed that it’s, to him, only a bunch of paper. In the film’s final pair of scenes, Costi visits a jewelry shop and selects a large variety of necklaces and bracelets randomly, then places them in a box, brings it to the school playground, and hands it over to his son and his friends, allowing them to grab as much as they can.

One can read The Treasure as simply a communist fable: a man takes the capitalist risks necessary to find wealth and, when he finds it, shares it. However, Porumboiu’s intentions seem to go deeper. The terms of government and capitalism set up early in the film — extraction, as well as inflation by interest (Adrian’s primary reason for looking for treasure is so he can pay his 13% mortgage interest rate, and the inflation on the stocks is what makes them so enormously valuable) — come back in the end to help Costi and Adrian, rather than hinder them as they did before. Porumboiu presents an ideal outcome in which the two main characters are more or less autonomous in their use of their new found wealth, but this wealth (and Costi’s subsequent redistribution of it) is achieved with a reversal of these capitalist/governmental terms. Instead of the capitalist entities taking money from the people, The Treasure envisions a situation in which the very things that place a strain on the people’s resources (interest digging into their personal income, extraction of natural resources destroying the ability to grow crops) are used to challenge those entities.

The final scene ends with children running around the playground, chasing after one another for their comparatively larger shares of the treasure as the camera ascends to the sky. The children exhibit a competitiveness often conflated with capitalism, yet the image of them playing with the jewels as though they are merely toys is powerful. In this way, The Treasure makes a mockery of the importance of wealth; when these signs of monetary excess (high-end jewelry) are removed from their appropriate context, they are revealed as just things. Money, it seems, is only important insofar as it’s all concentrated in one place.

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