The award for Most Ungainly Title for a Current Movie goes to the new Romanian film “Police, Adjective,” written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. This intermittently terrific cerebral thriller does, indeed, hinge on the proper use of dictionary definitions, but the film is really about the oppressive blahness of small-town, postcommunist Romania. In such surroundings, parsing definitions can almost stand for high drama.
In the decrepit northeastern city of Vasliu, undercover cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is tailing a high school teenager, Victor (Radu Costin), whose friend has informed on him for dealing marijuana. In fact, Victor is only an occasional user, and Cristi tries to curtail the surveillance by arguing that the boy’s offense is minor. Why, he asks of his superiors, should Victor be arrested and his life ruined when, in regard to leniency in such matters, Romania will likely soon fall in line with the rest of Europe?
The recently and not altogether happily married Cristi, whose wardrobe seems to consist of a pair of pullover sweaters, is a good cop. But he may, in the postcommunist scheme of things, be burdened with too much “conscience.” It is this word, “conscience,” that the film finally hinges on.
Cristi, weary, can no longer abide his assignment and, in one of the more unlikely but marvelous set pieces in modern movies, has a lengthy sit-down over a dictionary with his supercilious police captain boss (the great Vlad Ivanov, who played the abortionist in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”). It’s the kind of sequence that might have cropped up in an early Godard movie – in others words, it’s brilliant, boring, enlivening, maddening.
To prepare us for this moment, Porumboiu earlier stages an extended sequence between Cristi and his wife (Irina Saulescu) which turns on the use of symbols in romantic pop songs. This, too, is brilliant, boring, enlivening, maddening.
Porumboiu, whose feature debut was the acclaimed “12:08 East of Bucharest,” stages sequences in long, unbroken takes and lets us draw our own conclusions from what we see. There’s nothing insistent or voyeuristic about his approach. Like many of his fellow Romanian directors, he favors real time over reel time. He dispenses with most of the shorthand – rapid cutting, multiple points of view etc. – that moviemakers employ to break up the action.
His isn’t necessarily a truer approach to filming “real” life, and his longueurs sometimes veer from intense to interminable. In a way, what he’s doing here is just as affected, and sometimes as annoying, as what, on the other end of the action spectrum, Michael Bay does in “Transformers” – where no shot lasts longer than a millisecond. A bit more rapidity wouldn’t have been a bad thing here. If there’s a sequel, maybe we can hope for “Police, Verb”?
But the advantage of Porumboiu’s approach is that, when your gaze is held, the film seeps right into your bones. It’s not easy to present the workaday world in ways that transfix. That it often does here owes much to Bucur’s nuanced performance. We are made to feel that, in his situation, we would be just as concerned, and just as desultory.
I suspect that those versed in the arcana of Romanian politics will get the most out of this movie, but its moral issues, revolving as they do around matters of rightness and repression, are certainly universal.
Cristi’s predicament may seem like a small thing but, after all, a life is at stake – not only Victor’s but, in a sense, his own. In exchanging his own sense of ethical obligation in favor of a benevolent totalitarianism, he is dispensing with a piece of his soul. Grade: B+