PRINT January 2010


Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective

Corneliu Porumboiu, Police, Adjective, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Cristi (Dragoş Bucur).

LIKE 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST, for which Corneliu Porumboiu won the 2006 Caméra d’Or at Cannes, Police, Adjective, the Romanian director’s second feature, is, in part, a film about language, particularly how the contradictory usages of certain words are dead giveaways for the state of a society. Police, to take a loaded example, can be employed as an adjective in such salient phrases as police procedural (the film’s genre) and police state (a form of government that continues to cast a shadow, as Porumboiu shows, on Romania’s newborn, already stagnating democracy).

For most of the film, Cristi (Dragoş Bucur), a young undercover cop, shadows a teenager suspected of dealing hash. As Cristi tails Victor (Radu Costin) through the streets of Vaslui, the Romanian backwater that also lent 12:08 its setting and is in fact the director’s hometown, the camera, at a discreet distance, keeps surveillance on Cristi. Porumboiu pushes the fashionable idea of “observational cinema” to its limit by marrying its form and method to the narrative’s defining action. The irony at the heart of that narrative is that the detective’s diligent observation yields no evidence of a serious crime. Nevertheless, his superiors insist he set up a sting operation to nab Victor so they can put him away for seven years. The only way he can avoid jail is by informing on his supplier, who Cristi thinks, though he has no evidence to prove it, may be the teen’s older brother. Neither scenario sits well with Cristi. He doesn’t want to ruin a boy’s life—condemning him to extended jail time or coercing him to betray his brother—just for smoking a few joints. The more he watches Victor, the more empathetic he becomes. Similarly, the viewer is drawn to Cristi, who is caught in a trap not dissimilar to the one in which he is placing the boy. The same legal code that will send Victor to jail will cost Cristi his job if he refuses to hew to the letter of the law and instead follows his conscience.

Porumboiu could not have laid out his plot more simply. Police, Adjective is a film of repetitive, quotidian activities and hyperextended temporality. Its director is as concerned with time—objective and subjective—as with language. In 12:08 East of Bucharest, a local talk-show host tries to determine whether the citizens of Vaslui participated in the revolution of 1989 or merely celebrated it as a fait accompli, claiming that the crucial factor is whether they arrived in the town square before or after 12:08 PM on December 22 of that year, the moment that news cameras caught Ceauşescu fleeing for his life. What no one bothers to ask about is the meaning of revolution when applied to the way people live in post-totalitarian Romania.

Corneliu Porumboiu, Police, Adjective, 2009. (Trailer)

The same unspoken question hangs over Police, Adjective. In the extended sequences of Cristi shadowing his suspect, we get to observe the run-down facades of the town’s buildings, the drab clothes of its inhabitants, the near-empty display case in one of its cafés. In the police station, the computers are ancient enough to be prerevolutionary, and the mind-set of the Communist bureaucracy is still in place. (One of the movie’s running gags is that the Romanian Academy has decreed that the two-word phrase meaning “not any” must now be written as one word.) Cristi has a somewhat broader view of the world than the average Vasluite, having spent his honeymoon in Prague, where people smoke hash on the street; it’s his belief that Romania will follow suit in a few years—i.e., his belief in progress—that makes him reluctant to arrest Victor and out of sync with the reactionary police culture. Throughout the film, Cristi is playing for time—the two more weeks he needs to find the real drug dealer, the three years or so for the law to change. He has his eye on the future, his own and Victor’s.

But Cristi is no match for the chief of police (Vlad Ivanov), who uses a dictionary to offer a lesson in “dialectics,” a term whose meaning he’d have done well to look up. Indeed, the only dialectics operative here—brilliantly so—come in the very form of the film, in the opposing ways Porumboiu structures duration. There are bravura real-time sequences, most notably an unedited nine-minute scene in which Cristi eats dinner while offscreen his wife repeatedly plays an overorchestrated romantic ballad, irritating him so much that he shovels food into his mouth as a sensory defense, and the aforementioned twenty-minute climactic confrontation centering on the semantics of police (the adjective, of course) and law. (The scene contains a few internal edits, for technical reasons, but no break in diagetic time.) Even more incisively, Porumboiu adds a conceptual complication to the real-time staging that is a hallmark of the new Romanian cinema by juxtaposing the attenuated but far from real-time sequences in which Cristi tails his mark with close-ups of the reports he files at the end of each day. As the handwritten sentences scroll up the screen, we are given time enough to scan the entire report: What is described as a day of police activity was reduced to half an hour or so of enacted screen time and now to a minute’s worth of reading matter. While Cristi’s future—and perhaps Romania’s—is left in doubt, Police, Adjective, thanks to the rigor and dark wit of Porumboiu’s filmmaking, is an exhilarating and liberating experience.

Police, Adjective is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.