“Police, Adjective” is an unusual film, centered on concerns shoved aside by most cinema — boredom and linguistics. It also crossbreeds art cinema — with its slow pacing, long takes, and long shots — with the policier.
The film deglamorizes police work. Its poster shows a gun resting on a dictionary, but the latter is far more central to its plot. Through its eyes, a cop’s job is an endless slog around the dingy streets of provincial Romania, followed by the filing of bureaucratic reports whose high points are finding joints in the street. The film is so carefully structured that its narrative seems to emerge haphazardly, almost unconsciously. Only in retrospect is director Corneliu Porumboiu’s degree of craft apparent.
Cristi (Dragos Bucor) is a cop in a Romanian city. He’s following the trail of a drug dealer, but the more he investigates, the more trivial the case seems. Rather than a major drug trafficker, he’s pursuing a teenager who offers hashish to his friends. This could land him in jail for eight years — although the film’s cops and attorneys who defend the Romanian drug laws point out that he could get out in three and a half years with good behavior. Cristi spends his days following the teenager around and picking up cigarette butts to be tested for THC content. Eventually, he becomes disgusted with the pettiness of the case and convinced that Romania’s drug laws will be modified soon. His attitude brings him into conflict with his dictionary-wielding boss (Ivanov).
Corneliu Porumboiu examines the tyranny of words in Romania
“Police, Adjective” seems to exist in dialogue with other Romanian films, including Porumboiu’s debut, “12:08 East of Bucharest.” By casting Vlad Ivanov, “Police, Adjective” evokes Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days,” in which the actor played a terrifying black-market abortionist. Both films are concerned with government control over its citizens’ bodies. “Police, Adjective” specifically focuses on the marks of tyranny that have persisted in Romania from the era prior to the fall of communism.
Where drugs are concerned, both the police and their potential targets have reverted to their old ways. Friends turn on each other. Cristi sees the decriminalization of cannabis as a mark of modernization, as if it were a qualification to join the European Union. He points out that people smoke marijuana publicly on the streets of Prague and no one seems to care. However, his belief that no one should be arrested for smoking hash is tested by his boss’ command of the Romanian language. Cristi gets badgered into making a choice between his own “moral law” and his duty to enforce present-day Romanian law.
Cristi is betrayed by language several times. The film’s final confrontation is foreshadowed by a discussion Cristi has with his wife over a seemingly banal pop song. She loves it, but he finds it inane. When he points out the lyrics’ flaws, she defends them as brilliant examples of symbolism. Cristi has a good heart, but he lacks the capacity to defend his beliefs on anyone else’s terms.
“Police, Adjective” proceeds very slowly, with lengthy tracking shots in which the camera faces a walking man head-on or at a diagonal angle. His face usually isn’t visible. Whose perspective does the camera represent? Porumboiu’s directorial choices recall horror films that use the camera to represent the killer’s point of view, as well as the long takes of Hungarian directors Béla Tarr and Miklos Jancso. Just as Cristi puts his targets under surveillance, he’s followed in turn by a voyeuristic camera. Porumboiu implicates himself — or, at least, the medium of film — in the chain of surveillance he depicts.
As critic Anthony Kaufman has pointed out, “Except for a few modern-looking automobiles, everything from computers to desks to the drab fluorescent office lighting appears as if it hadn’t been changed in 30 years.”
“Police, Adjective” is deeply concerned with what it means to be a modern Romanian, so much so that the subtitles have difficulty adequately translating the discussion about semantics. The evils of bureaucracy, no doubt universal, remain front and center. Porumboiu’s pacing creates a gradual buildup of tension; scenes like one in which Cristi waits to speak with his boss while a secretary types away have a grating quality that goes far beyond their literal content.
By the time of the film’s final confrontation between Cristi and his boss, “Police, Adjective” is no less disturbing than “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days,” even though it never places its characters in the path of physical harm. The dictionary comes to seem no less dangerous than a gun.
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
In Romanian with English subtitles
Opens Dec. 23
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