True to its title, the new Romanian film “Police, Adjective” is a story of law enforcement with a special interest in grammar. Its climactic scene is not a chase or a shootout, but rather a tense, suspenseful session of dictionary reading.
I’m not being in any way facetious. The movie’s director, Corneliu Porumboiu, whose previous feature was “12:08 East of Bucharest,” has a talent for infusing mundane, absurd moments with gravity and drama as well as humor. The dictionary in that scene is a versatile comic prop, and also an instrument of instruction and humiliation. It is introduced by an officious police captain (Vlad Ivanov, who played the predatory abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) who wants to teach his underling a lesson.
To say exactly what is learned would not only spoil the ending — this is a cop movie, after all, with a bit of a twist in the tail — but would also blunt the bite of Mr. Porumboiu’s mordant satire. So let’s just note that the Romanian word for “police” is used as an adjective in two ways. The first usage applies to (I quote the English subtitles) “a novel or film involving criminal happenings that are in some degree mysterious, resolved in the end through the ingenuity of a police officer or detective.” In an unexpected and somewhat underhanded way, that describes the action of “Police, Adjective.” It is at least as relevant, however, that the other cited use of the adjective is to modify the word “state.”
“All states depend on the police,” says the captain, waving off not only his country’s specific history, but also a possibly significant distinction between its old totalitarian regime and its new democratic order. Mr. Porumboiu, whose hapless characters debate whether the revolution of 1989 really took place in their corner of the country, is not making an argument that nothing has changed in Romania since the bad old days. Rather, he is investigating the nature of bureaucratic authority and the perverse, crushing effects it can have on an individual.
His protagonist is Cristi, a detective played with brusque, weary likability by Dragos Bucur, who in previous roles (notably in Radu Muntean’s “Boogie” and Cristi Puiu’s “Stuff and Dough”) has embodied the malaise of early adulthood in post-Communist Romania. Cristi is working on a case that would, by the standard of American television cop shows, be less than trivial. He is gathering evidence against a high school student who smokes a little hashish and has been informed on by a friend and smoking buddy.
Cristi suspects that the one he calls the Squealer wants to get the other boy out of the way and make a move on his girlfriend, who also hangs out with them. And as Cristi follows them, stakes out their houses and files his reports, he feels more and more uneasy. In other countries, he explains to a prosecutor who is a little more sympathetic than the captain, the casual possession and use of small quantities of hashish is not really a police matter at all.
The crux of the drama in “Police, Adjective” is the tension between Cristi’s professional duty and his conscience, a conflict the dictionary is called on to adjudicate. And the substance of the movie is a series of slowly paced scenes that follow him through his routines. He deals with pushy or recalcitrant co-workers, trudges through days of surveillance work without changing his sweater and returns home for desultory conversations with his wife, Anca (Irina Saulescu), who matter-of-factly tells him that things are not working out between them and then continues as if nothing of consequence had been said.
At another point, as Anca, a teacher and something of a linguistic pedant, listens to a romantic pop song over and over on her computer, she and Cristi have a debate about images and symbols in literature. Why, he wonders, don’t people just stick with the literal meanings of words, and forget about all the fancy stuff. His position is a hyperbolically blunt statement of an impulse that drives much recent Romanian cinema, away from metaphor and toward a concrete, illusion-free reckoning with things as they are.
This can be called realism, but that sturdy old word is not quite sufficient to describe “Police, Adjective,” which is at once utterly plain, even affectless, and marvelously rich. Mr. Porumboiu’s style might be called proceduralist. Like Cristi writing his reports, Mr. Porumboiu scrupulously records details in a manner that only seems literal-minded because his technique is invisible, and his intelligence resolutely unshowy.
“Police, Adjective” tells a small story well. At the level of plot, it is consistently engaging, and the psychology of the ambivalent detective, a staple of film noir, is given a new twist in the character of Cristi. But the more closely you look, the more you see: a movie about a marriage, about a career in crisis, about a society riven by unstated class antagonisms and hobbled by ancient authoritarian habits. So much in this meticulous and moving film is between the lines, and almost nothing is by the book.
Opens on Wednesday in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Written, directed and produced by Corneliu Porumboiu; director of photography, Marius Panduru; edited by Roxana Szel; production designer, Mihaela Poenaru; released by IFC Films. In Manhattan at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Dragos Bucur (Cristi), Vlad Ivanov (Anghelache), Irina Saulescu (Anca), Ion Stoica (Nelu), Marian Ghenea (the Prosecutor) and Cosmin Selesi (Costi).
By J. Hoberman (Village Voice)
Detective stories imply that mysteries can be solved, or at least rationally explained. Even the most debased example is a secular article of faith that also confirms a universe in which guilt is determined and the guilty accorded just deserts. Such are the underpinnings of 34-year-old Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu's remarkably self-effacing and highly intelligent comedy Police, Adjective—a philosophical crime film that, as the investigation of an investigation, substitutes irony for suspense.
Police, Adjective focuses almost entirely on the banal details of a particular case. Three high school kids have been reported smoking weed. For much of the movie, we watch the conscientious young plainclothes detective (Dragos Bucur) watching them (an example of what Walter Benjamin might have deemed applied flâneurism), then dutifully collecting bits of evidence and filing reports in which the raw data of clues is transformed into a dossier and the basis for an argument.
Porumboiu's estimable debut, the bleak farce 12:08 East of Bucharest—named for the moment that Romania's Communist regime collapsed on live TV—was concerned with the malleability of historical truth. Police, Adjective has a related interest in vérité. Based on objective observation, it's voluptuously nondescript—almost documentary in its locations, namely the filmmaker's provincial hometown Vaslui, also used in 12:08—but more focused on a specific situation.
Although it's not entirely clear exactly which kid is committing the crime of supplying the others with pot, there's enough free-floating incrimination to bust someone. The detective's supervisor orders him to run a sting and make the collar, but the detective, who has concluded that the "squealer" is setting up his friend (who is unlikely to denounce the apparent source of the drugs, his older brother), demurs. Making his own judgment on the evidence, the detective deems the crime too minor to warrant prosecution, particularly under a Draconian law he believes will be amended once Romania joins the European Union. In this disinclination to identify and punish, the cop not only transgresses the rules of the detective genre but also confounds the state's need to identify individual guilt and evade collective responsibility.
With its series of apparently absurd routines, shot (Romanian-style) in long takes and real-time, Police, Adjective has something of the deadpan theatricality of early Jim Jarmusch—not only in its framing, but its dialogue: Words are carefully parsed; every conversation has its own logic. In the first of two set pieces, the detective returns home and is irritated to find his wife at the computer, watching and rewatching a YouTube performance of an inane pop song. The couple engages in a lengthy analysis of the song's lyrics. When he questions their rational meaning ("What would the sea be without the sun?"), she defends their linguistic structure.
The cop's wife also works in law enforcement—a professional grammarian who helpfully vets her husband's reports—and it turns out that the cop's supervisor is a stickler for words as well. The essentially good-natured conjugal riff on pop-music semantics is replayed to more troubling effect in the movie's climactic scene, when the supervisor uses a dictionary and a blackboard to turn the detective's use of the words "law," "conscience," and "police" against him. That the supervisor is played by Vlad Ivanov, the sinister abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and casually drops the term "dialectics" to explain his method, gives this riveting sequence an unmistaken political subtext.
Made by one who grew up in a police state (note the adjectival use) and watched it fall apart, Police, Adjective is a deadly serious as well as dryly humorous analysis of bureaucratic procedure and, particularly, the tyranny of language. Images may record reality, but words define it. In the end, Police, Adjective ponders the nature of moral obligation, something that might apply to filmmakers as well as police detectives.
By Nicholas Rapold (L Magazine)
In 12:08 East of Bucharest and now Police, Adjective, Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu puts language on stage as he stakes out his territory: the difficulties and dangers of pinning things down and talking things out when the present seems so lightly draped over the past. In Porumboiu’s boomerang-arced second film laced with dry humor, a young plainclothes detective is tasked with observing and busting some high schoolers on minor drug offenses. But he finds it hard to go through with it and harder still to rebuff his chief’s reactionary sophistry. At home: soup and a sweetly passive-aggressive wife obsessed with the schmaltzy tunes that keep cropping up in the recent Romanian wave.
Stonewalled by shrugging bureaucrats, the conscientious cop, Cristi (heavy-browed Dragos Bucur), is quietly stubborn, like some ironic alternative to the American loose-cannon type. His surveillance of the hash-smokers, which is shot in sometime real-time, takes place in bleak run-down locales that turn the screen into sections of gray; his reports are shown in All the President’s Men close-up. All this is praxis prelude to the thrilling climax by dictionary: a near-ten-minute debate between Cristi and his superior (Vlad Ivanov, also leveraging ground as the abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days).
Porumboiu, who studied management, makes a double drama out of having a deviously intelligent boss and watching reality bent in his hands through words. His film is more unnerving and universal in appeal than mere post-bloc satire, and surges past the purposefulness of its premise.
Opens December 23