Police, Adjective (IFC Films, NR)

policeadj2.jpgIn Police, Adjective, it’s an obsession with the meanings of words which culminates in a now-famous 20-minute scene near the end of the film in which the captain has Cristi read aloud dictionary definitions for terms such as “conscience,” “law” and “moral.”

 

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When it comes to cinema, Romania is the new Iran. Just as Iranian film burst on the international festival circuit in the 1990s, so the films of the Romanian New Wave have made their presence known in the first decade of the 21st century. Although the content of the films are different (Romanian directors tend to take a much more satirical and critical look at their nation, probably because they can), both share a propensity for spare yet intense examinations of human existence, which provides a welcome contrast to the likes of Night at the Museum and 2012.

Police, Adjective, winner of the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes 2009 Film Festival and Romania’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film, is a good example of the Romanian New Wave style and concerns. It’s a police procedural without car chases, shootouts or even fistfights which uses the genre to pose questions about morality and language, calmly and beautifully filmed with a strong awareness of camera placement, shot composition and color.

Cristi (Dragoş Bucur) is a policeman in the small town of Vaslui (director Corneliu Porumboiu’s hometown) who has been assigned to a drug case which involves a teenager smoking pot and sharing it with two other friends. The wisdom of devoting major police resources to so minor a case must have already occurred to you, and Cristi is also reluctant to arrest a young man on a charge which could send him to prison for seven years. But to the precinct captain (Vlad Ivanov, who played the scary abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days), the law is the law, and there’s no room for individual judgment.

The problem is that Cristi has been corrupted. He spent his honeymoon abroad and learned that in most of Europe smoking a joint is not cause for arrest. He stalls and argues for building a case against the suspected supplier of the drugs, but the captain could not care less about how they do it in other countries or the likelihood that Romania will reform its own drug laws within a few years. He wants Cristi to set up a sting operation and arrest the kid because his mind doesn’t stretch beyond the letter of the law, and also because he doesn’t like subordinates challenging his authority.

As Porumboiu’s previous film 12:08 East of Bucharest (winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2006, for best first feature film), the minute points of an argument are satirized in Police, Adjective. In 12:08 East of Bucharest, the crux of the issue was whether an individual was in the town square before the exact moment when Nicolae Ceauşescu fled Bucharest. In Police, Adjective, it’s an obsession with the meanings of words which culminates in a now-famous 20-minute scene near the end of the film in which the captain has Cristi read aloud dictionary definitions for terms such as “conscience,” “law” and “moral.” Private interpretations don’t count; if a meaning is not in the dictionary it simply doesn’t exist. Besides, the captain argues, we can only be sure by enforcing the law exactly as written. If people were allowed to use their conscience and personal morality to make judgments, the result would be societal chaos.

Several scenes prefigure this concern with the details of language, including one between Cristi and his schoolteacher wife (Irina Saulescu) in which they argue about the use of anaphora in the lyrics of a popular song. “Negative pronominal adjectives” (huh?) come up twice as well, and it seems Romanians can be as legalistic about their native tongue as about drug use. Cristi’s wife assures him that it’s the Romanian Academy who gets to decide how the language is to be used.

But for all its concern with words, Police, Adjective is not a talky movie; in fact, it has long stretches without dialogue, including the two-minute sequence which opens the film. This throws more attention on the film’s distinctive visual style, which combines an intense awareness of color and arrangement within the frame with long takes, a primarily still camera, and a propensity for wide shots in which the action takes place in the background.

Much of the running time of Police, Adjective is taken up with showing the kinds of activities usually omitted from contemporary cinema: walking down corridors, observing people from a distance, waiting to speak with someone. It often feels as if Porumboiu, and his film, come from the era when films were edited by hand and life in general ran at a slower clip. You need to settle into the pace of Police, Adjective to appreciate what it has to offer, but your reward will be enjoyment of a sharply satirical film which reveals its pleasures only gradually and at a whisper. | Sarah Boslaugh

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