"Police, Adjective", de Corneliu Porumboiu (Variety, Screen)

By Jay Weissberg
A 42 KM Film production, in association with Racova, Raza Studio, with the participation of HBO Romania. Produced by Corneliu Porumboiu. Executive producer, Marcela Ursu. Directed, written by Corneliu Porumboiu.

With: Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Ion Stoica, Irina Saulescu, Cerasela Trandafir, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi, Serban Georgevici, George Remes, Adina Dulcu, Dan Cogalniceanu, Costi Dita, Alexandru Sabadac, Anca Diaconu, Radu Costin, Viorel Nebunu, Emanoela Tigla, Daniel Birsan, Bungeanu Mioara.
New Romanian cinema gains further impetus with Corneliu Porumboiu's cerebral non-thriller "Police, Adjective." With his 2006 Camera d'Or winner, "12:08 East of Bucharest," Porumboiu established himself as a witty writer-helmer with a superb ear for dialogue and an interest in the broader ramifications of truth. His follow-up, about a contempo cop's unwilling surveillance of a teen suspected of selling pot, takes things further, aiming a laser-sharp intellect and a deeply considered understanding of language at themes of authority and the residue of totalitarianism. Euro and bicoastal arthouse play is assured, though some auds may find the actionless passages taxing.

The deliberately paced opening -- following teen Victor (Radu Costin) as he's trailed by undercover cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur, "Boogie") through crumbling sections of the north-eastern city of Vasliu -- immediately sets up an unspoken critique of the country's post-communist stagnation. It's the inability, or refusal, to move forward, in all aspects of Romanian society, that's the real subject of the movie.

Cristi is a good cop, if a bit weary, and recently married to Anca (Irina Saulescu). His superior, Nelu (Ion Stoica), has him shadowing Victor in hopes of finding out where the teen's weed comes from, but in the course of his investigation, Cristi realizes Victor's just a kid who occasionally lights up with some friends. Though Nelu accepts Cristi's findings, he's unwilling to listen to the argument that Romanian law will soon fall in line with pan-European practices, so what's the point of ruining a kid's life for something that will soon be more or less legal?

Porumboiu uses his camera rationally, as a surveillance tool, yielding long passages in which little apparently happens. Victor's life, like that of most teens, is not exciting, and Cristi's tailing becomes a drudgery. Still, Porumboiu manages to hold the viewer's attention with tiny details, and by building sympathy for Cristi and showing the cop's growing sympathy for Victor.

An illuminating finale with police captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov) not only justifies all this careful pacing and deliberate buildup, but also rewards the viewer with one of those rare revelatory moments, exposing the full strength of what has preceded it. An earlier scene between Cristi and Anca plants the seed of what's to come, and how questions of language, and the parsing of definitions, can be manipulated and turned against their true purpose.

That's where "Police, Adjective" is so extraordinary: Porumboiu is one of the few helmers working today who so completely understands both the power of language and the power of visuals. He brings this intelligence to bear on the corrupting influence of a system that exerted control for generations, arguing that such systems die very hard deaths.

Perfs show the naturalness that's perhaps the sole common trait of the so-called Romanian New Wave. Ivanov, the chilling abortionist from "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," appears only towards the end, but the studied calm and confidence in his power are thrilling and devastating to watch.

The camera calls as little attention to itself as possible, generally maintaining (like Cristi) an observational stance. However, every inch of the frame contains something meaningful, as when the fixed camera holds onto the image of Cristi and Anca separated by a wall. Version caught in Bucharest was screened digitally, before sound and color correction were completed, but was otherwise a finished version.

Camera (color), Marius Panduru; editor, Roxana Szel; music, Mirabela Dauer, Yan Raiburg; production designer, Mihaela Poenaru; costume designer, Giorgiana Bostan; sound (Dolby Digital), Alexandru Dragomir, Sebastian Zsemlye, Christian Mike Sugar; assistant director, Mihai Sofronea; casting, S.C. Exit Films 2002. Reviewed at Elvire Popesco Cinema, Bucharest, Romania, April 2, 2009. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Un Certain Regard.) Running time: 110 MIN.


By Dan Fainaru

No festival worth its salt will want to miss Corneliu Porumboiu’s follow-up to the Cannes Camera D’Or-winning 12:08, East of Bucharest (2006). Not only does his new film, set for Un Certain Regard this year, confirm the promise of his debut, but it goes one step further in its sober attempt to achieve the maximum with the minimum of means. A tough nut to crack but worth every bit of the patience required to do so, this subtle, unassuming and yet smartly sophisticated film may look bewildering at first sight, but with festival exposure and critical support, seems destined for a solid art house career.

Though its simple approach would seem to skewer the pretentious pomposity of art films in general, Police, Adjective’s brilliant finale tackles such purely “arty” concepts as the discrepancy between words and their meanings, and the abyss separating even the most accurately phrased definitions from the sense they assume in everyday life. Straightforward and unadorned, it delivers a witty and wicked portrait not only of life in the small city of Vaslui – the same location Porumboiu used in his first film – but of the basic human dilemma of remaining faithful to what one believes in.

Cristi (Bucur), a young police inspector, shadows a teenager who allegedly purchases and sells pot to his fellow high school students. The suspect is followed from home to school, from school to a friend’s house, where the pair is joined by a girl who is then followed to her home. Cristi notes everything down, and the more he sees, the less convinced he is about the job he is supposed to do. Arresting a boy of sixteen for smoking pot will result in him being sent to prison for seven years and his entire future being destroyed: Cristi’s conscience won’t let him do that.

After avoiding his boss for days, he is finally ordered to make a full report and proceed to take immediate action. Cristi mentions his conscience and his boss surprisingly indulges him, bringing in a dictionary and showing Cristi that there is nothing in the definition of the word “conscience” which would prevent his acting as ordered and there is everything in the dictionary definition of the word “police” to justify taking action. This cold, precise and effective scene has the police captain (a tour de force performance by Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist in 4 months, 3 weeks…) demonstrating the absurd logic behind police work, leaving his subordinate, unconvinced but speechless, with no alternative but to do as he is told.

The clever simplicity of the visual language here draws the viewer’s imagination into play; there is no distracting music; the camera work never exceeds a horizontal pan; the bare-bones dialogue wastes no words. It all looks remarkably naïve and innocent, but most certainly isn’t. Dragos Bucur’s winning soulful sincerity perfectly suits the lead part, providing a natural patsy for the unscrupulous composition of Ivanov in the final sequence.

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