Shadow Play
By Damon Smith

Police, Adjective
Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, IFC Films

Less is more in the sophomore feature by Cannes Camera d’or winner Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), a filmmaker attentive, like his fellow under-40 countrymen Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu, to the ironies of bureaucracy in post-totalitarian Romania. Police, Adjective is a slow-burning, intriguingly subtle tweak on the crime procedural. But the arc of this story, unlike most classic policiers, is almost bewilderingly straightforward: Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young plainclothes cop in an unnamed provincial town, stakes out a high-schooler suspected of dealing hashish, yet is reluctant to haul him in on the testimony of a dubious informant. Despite its resemblance to a character-driven psychological suspense film, however bare-bones its approach—it’s no Zodiac, and doesn’t aspire to be—Police, Adjective is more a showcase for Porumboiu’s formal precision with urban anyspace and penchant for mordant, slice-of-life humor, its wry punchline ultimately hinging (as the title boldly hints) on the vagaries of language.

For a film ostensibly concerned with a criminal investigation, Police, Adjective flouts generic convention, since Porumboiu never presents us with a puzzle to solve. He’s more inclined to examine the quotidian routines of his protagonist, a quietly methodical lawman who lurks in doorways, tailing his mark, Alex (Alexandru Sabadac), from a school playground to his tenement home, always careful to remain at a safe distance and dutifully sniffing the teen’s mashed butts for traces of THC. Cristi’s weeklong stakeout has led to no revelations about the supplier’s identity or even additional evidence to support the snitch’s claim. When he’s informed that the prosecutor (Marian Ghenea) wants him to coordinate a sting operation and wrap the case, Cristi balks. He doesn’t see the need to apply the force of law for such a minor offense as possession, since it will mean a future-dashing, seven-year sentence for the youth, something he doesn’t want on his conscience. Besides, he maintains to his boss, nowhere in Europe do they arrest people for smoking joints, and the law is certain to follow. Bucharest, after all, is known as the “Little Paris.”

Porumboiu’s point is subtle, but clear: The times they are a-changin’. Yet, while Romania may have initiated enough financial reforms in the wake of Ceausescu to gain admission to the European Union, the nation-state’s social transition from Communist backwater to progressive liberal republic will be a slower process. This issue is reflected as well in the obsessive detailing of Cristi’s tanglings with petty bureaucracy (we see him persistently needling indifferent colleagues for license-plate checks and passport information, and matter-of-factly avoiding departmental meetings) and in the cheerless milieu where he lives and works. Shot in Porumboiu’s hometown of Vaslui by cinematographer Marius Panduru (who photographed 12:08 East of Bucharest in the same location), Police, Adjective has a quasi-documentary aesthetic, unfolding in a featureless suburb whose ramshackle streets and ragged cement edifices posit an infrastructure disappointed by time and years of neglect. Even Cristi’s office, which he shares with moronic detective Nelu (Ion Stoica), is a humble indicator of post-Soviet penury, with its cheap wooden desks, much-abused bank of rusty metal lockers, and a TRS-80-grade computer that’s never switched on.

Consciously or not, Porumboiu’s visual technique harkens back to Michelangelo Antonioni, whose rigorous compositional sense (especially in Red Desert) informs much of the film’s exterior framing and shotmaking, which highlight the architectural qualities of the spaces Cristi traverses. The other touchstone is Chantal Akerman, whose tour-de-force endurance test Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles finds an echo of sorts in the director’s equally masterfully extended long takes. Monotony can be mesmerizing, though. Most of the surveillance sequences unfold in real time, allowing us to experience Cristi’s world and daily routine as he does, an audience-baiting risk that does make sense, since we gain pertinent bits of knowledge about Cristi in the same manner that he assembles a dossier on his shiftless, possibly innocent suspect: through patient observation of his everyday behavior and body language, his haunts and habits.

Cristi is a laconic fact-gatherer, using only the words he needs to communicate basic requests—or, in one sardonic exchange, frankly informing an overweight colleague, without malice, that he isn’t welcome at the next “foot-tennis” league game because he’s not a good player. Stocky but stoop-shouldered, his head retreating into the grey turtleneck he always wears as if he were perpetually hoping to escape notice (Bresson’s Pickpocket was an influence, Porumboiu has noted), Cristi is an emblem of modesty. He writes precise, meticulously detailed handwritten reports. Watching him eat a meal alone at home (in an interminable bit that takes about five minutes of screen time) is fascinating because it is utterly mundane. Boredom is an aspect of Cristi’s work and inner life, as it is for most anyone. Waiting to be chewed out by his superior, Cristi broods in a nondescript room while a middle-aged secretary clacks away on a keypad, the empty minutes ticking by. As a mini-portrait of ennui, the scene is torturous, but funny too.

Porumboiu’s other objective is to delimit the role that language plays in defining the properties of seemingly stable, comprehensible concepts like “moral law.” As Wittgenstein was at pains to elaborate in his Philosophical Investigations, often in beautifully aphoristic prose, we don’t hunt after the essence of our words when we speak or write. We just use them. Problems arise, however, when we (or in this case, a well-meaning cop who refuses to adhere to the letter of the law) do not command a clear view of grammar. Summoned to the office of police captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov, the formidable abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), who demands to know his reasons for refusing to orchestrate the sting arrest, Cristi ventures to say that doing so would burden his conscience. Instead of rebuking him, Anghelache asks him to define “conscience,” and has Nelu chart the answer on a chalkboard. Unsatisfied, he calls for a Romanian dictionary, and has Cristi read the entries aloud for “law” and “conscience.”

For all the sly, droll humor of this pedantic exercise in Socratic method (“What we are doing here is dialectics,” says Anghelache to his hopelessly befuddled officers), the captain’s discursive gamesmanship has a professed purpose. He wants Cristi to honor his oath of allegiance, regardless of how it may trouble his personal values, but only if he understands what’s at stake: The rule of law versus the chaos of individual will. (Earlier, Anghelache chides Cristi for using the term “squeal” instead of “denounce,” because “that’s what the criminals call it.”) Porumboiu has carefully laid the groundwork for this nosedive into metaphysics, setting up Cristi as someone who has a purely pragmatic relationship to words, which for him are uncomplicated tools of description. In one key scene (another marathon long take), Cristi questions his petite schoolteacher wife, Anca (Irina Saulescu), about the lyrics to a kitschy Mirabela Dauer love song she obsessively watches on YouTube. “What would ‘the sea be without the sun’? I don’t get it,” he says. “The sea would still be the sea, and the sun would still be the sun.”

Porumboiu is obviously as fascinated by semantic questions—with how we make sense or don’t of truth statements and empirical data—as he is with reworking the basic template of the crime film. 12:08 East of Bucharest made farce out of a similar quest for truth: Panelists in a television studio, assembled to honor the town’s role in the historic uprising that deposed Ceausescu, wind up bickering at length about whether or not there was a revolution. Despite the eccentric emphasis on grammar (Anca tells Cristi he’s written a “negative pronominal adjective” incorrectly in one of his reports, as two words rather than one, which prompts him to wonder “who decides these things?”), duration plays a much more integral role in Police, Adjective than dialogue. Porumboiu’s neutral-hued naturalism and minimal set-ups have a curiously tonic effect too, giving existential verities a sociopolitical shading and working punchy exchanges on law and morality, power and knowledge, into the elementary framework of conversation. It’s no masterpiece, but still, with its weird meld of disputation and glum, location-specific realism, rather brilliant.

Its artistry may be clear, but Police, Adjective’s fate, in today’s distribution market, is another matter entirely. With the exception of Mungiu’s riveting Palme d’or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the celebrated new wave of Romanian films (Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the late Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’) have hardly registered a synaptic tic in the consciousness of most Western filmgoers, even in cinephilic France (just look at the appalling box-office figures). And that’s a shame. It’s unlikely that Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, a selection of the 2009 New York Film Festival, will offer a significant breakthrough or corrective to that trend, even with the on-demand platform of distributor IFC Films and a spoor of enthusiastic notices out of Cannes. But it does underscore an incontrovertible fact: world-class cinema is thriving in a forgotten, once-forbidding wedge of Eastern Europe. Case closed.