Police, Adjective: Another Excellent Film from Romania

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2008–With his remarkable second feature, “Police, Adjective,” Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu joins the ranks of Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) and 2007 Palme laureate Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) of a major talent, blessed by a lively, funny and startling way of breathing new life into familiar or received ideas.

Porumboiu's debut, “1208: East of Bucharest” captured the Cannes Festival Camera d’Or for best first feature three years ago. The set up of “Police, Adjective” is fairly simple, but Porumboiu elliptically, immersing us in the quotidian action and cumulative details to present a scrupulous, deeply moral vision of the present. In his director’s notes, he states: “I wanted to make a film about language, about its meaning, or better yet, about its lack of meaning.”
Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is a police officer tailing three young high school students, two boys and a girl, who convene outside their school regularly to smoke hash. The possessor of the illicit stash is a well-dressed, middle class boy from a socially prominent family. The other boy is, according to Cristi, “a snitch,” his motives unreliable. Cristi is also unable to ascertain the precise role played by the girl.
The officer is pressured by his superiors and the district attorney to arrest the boy for “offering,” an offense carrying a 7-year prison sentence. One recurrent political subtext of many Romanian features is surveying the moral and political wreckage of the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. The punitive drug laws are a stark reminder of the repressive social order of the communist years.
His superiors want him to wrap up the investigation, which is now going longer than a week. They are demanding Cristi coordinate a sting operation to learn the truth of the drug’s supplier. Cristi is reluctant to do so, believing the law is not only obsolete, but likely to be changed. He expresses great moral concerns about his own culpability in ruining the life of a promising young boy for what he deems a very insignificant social transgression.
The spare beauty and wonder of the film is how Porumboiu develops an escalating tension and dramatic insight out of the officer’s refusal to arrest the boy. Drawing on the particulars of the police officer’s daily routine, surveillance, paperwork and perusing of the youths’ family records, Porumboiu invests his compelling, fascinating protagonist with a serious, thoughtful consciousness that is frequently breathtaking to watch.
The writing is like something out of Beckett, given that Porumboiu creates scenes and actions in which literally, nothing happens. The movie has long stretches with little or no dialogue. Porumboiu has a great ear for dialogue, for the uncomfortable silences or how people avoid talking about what’s really on their minds. In a pivotal early scene with his immediate boss Nelu (Ion Stoica), Cristi uses the occasion of his recent honeymoon to talk about the relaxed liberal social democracies of the CzechRepublic and France, a marked contrast to what he considers a broken, outmodelled system at home.
That exaggerated sense of anxiousness is central to so much of Eastern European art and culture. In the Romanian films like “Police, Adjective,” “Lazarescu” and “4 Months,” the work is studded with a pitch black, ironic and cruel humor. (In these worlds, you laugh so hard that you cry.) There’s a hilarious encounter between Cristi and his wife (Irina Saulescu) about song lyrics that again provides a piercing, close up between the divide of what language intends and what people take from it.
That scene leads to the extraordinary conclusion between Cristi and the police chief, Anghelache (played by Vlad Ivanov, the back alley abortionist from 4 Months). The two engage in a series of darkly comic, absurdist conversations about the meaning and value of specific words, and how it impacts this case. Porumboiu shoots the material in unbroken takes, putting incredible pressure on his actors to sustain the back and forth volleys.
It sounds dull and repetitive, but it’s just the opposite. Action takes on a different meaning, provided here in the changing facial movements, subtly different alterations in tone or mood where the humanism and hope of Cristi plays off the hardened realities and more pragmatic approach of his superior. This is not a typical cop movie where heroes and villains are sharply contrasted.
“Police, Adjective” is colored in different shades. It has difficult moments and it taxes your patience, but the payoff is worth every grueling second.
Cristi – Dragos Bucur
Anghelache – Vlad Ivanov
Anca – Irina Saulescu
Nelu –Ion Stoica
The Prosecutor –Marian Ghenea
Costi – Cosmin Selesi
SIC – Serban Georgevici
Vali – George Remes
Dana – Adina Dulcu

A 42 Km Film production.
Produced by Corneliu Porumboiu

Directed, written by Porumboiu
Executive produced by Marcela Ursu
Camera (Color, 1:185), Marius Panduru
Editor, Roxana Szel
Art director, Mihaela Poenaru
Costumes, Giorgiana Bostan
Sound, Alexandru Dragomir, Sebastian Zsemlye
Running time: 113 Minutes