While the pay-off in this anti-police procedural comes very late, it caps a minimalist and sardonic tour-de-force from Corneliu Porumboiu, whose “12:08 East of Bucharest” won the award for best first film at Cannes in 2006. This worthy follow-up shows an even more discerning and confident eye from the young director. No one-hit wonder, Porumboiu confirms the promise of both the new Romanian cinema and his own status as a burgeoning world-class auteur. If several discerning critics have dismissed a number of Cannes competition titles, “Police, Adjective” has emerged as a favorite.
Cristi (Dragos Bucur, star of Porumboiu’s short “Liviu’s Dream”), a young policeman, is tailing a student and staking out his house, trying to determine the source of the young man’s hashish. Porumboiu keeps much of these pursuits at a distance – we never see the face of the student, for example – instead keeping focus on the cop’s laconic, yet detailed efforts. There is nothing suspicious or suspenseful that goes on; in fact, that’s the point. Whatever illicit activity exists is undoubtedly on a most minor level.
The conflict arises not in the investigation so much as Cristi’s desire to flout the Romanian law that would consider these episodes of drug use an offense punishable by up to 8 years in prison. Cristi, probably no more than a decade older than his target, clearly sympathizes with the young offender, claiming to his fellow officers that the law – like in other European countries – will surely be changed to reflect the changing times. It’s the capricious nature of law, along with the fickle ways of language and meaning, that’s really at issue in “Police, Adjective” – as the film’s title suggests, i.e. from Websters: “Police (adjective) police power, police corruption, police state.”
While seemingly tangential to the narrative, oddball exchanges about Prague and Bucharest alternately known as the “Little Paris,” a Romanian pop song whose lyrics’s significance “what would today be without tomorrow?” remain elusive to Cristi, and a new way of spelling “not-any” as a single word eventually suggest deeper questions at issue in Porumboiu’s deceptively minimalist screenplay.
As with previous subtle Romanian stunners, “Police, Adjective” is set in the non-descript, dilapidated suburban wasteland of the post-Communist country: 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. Nearly every Romanian building needs a replastering or a paint job, all of which contributes to the film’s general sense of unease and lingering feeling of oppression.
The film also uses the extended long takes that many have associated with recent films from Romania. Here, they may test the patience of some viewers-there were several walkouts during the film’s second soldout press screening-but the cumulative affect evokes the tedium and futility of Cristi’s police investigation, not to mention his world. Near the film’s conclusion, there’s a scene in which a take runs for what seems like an eternity, observing Cristi sitting next to a woman clicking away at a typewriter. Neither the camera, nor Cristi moves, and yet, there’s something compelling and ironic as the shot persists in real-time. After a while, if one is tuned into the film’s sense of prevailing ennui, it actually becomes funny – in an absurdist way reminiscent of fellow Romanian writer Eugene Ionesco.
The film’s climax – if you could call it that – involves an extended confrontation between Cristi and his senior superior, Anghelache, played by Vlad Ivanov, who is no less ominous here than his banally evil turn as the abortionist in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” The two men, plus another officer, battle it out, by looking up words in a dictionary. If seemingly undramatic, Poromboiu manages to turn a scene in which Cristi reads definitions in the dictionary into a profound statement on power, control and morality.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the Cannes Film Festival. “Police, Adjective” opens in theaters Wednesday.