Cristi is a cop in Romania who has been charged with shadowing a 16 year old kid and building a case for his arrest for smoking and dealing weed. Unlike in the rest of Europe, herb is illegal here, and cannot be openly smoked. The cops were placed on the tail of this teenager by the teenager’s friend, who may be more interested in the kid’s girlfriend than in deterring outlawed vices. This all sounds like rather pedestrian and dour subject matter for a police thriller, and so it unfolds as such before your very eyes, in long takes that give the impression of an investigation in real time. This is the police procedural to end all; this is what police officers do every day, and it appears tedious beyond belief as the viewer is dragged from one moment devoid of portent to the next. The subject of the film is boring, literally nothing happens of note, and yet Police, Adjective is exhilarating to watch if you enjoy films that actually try new things with the medium. Just as Gerry was a daring exercise in the beauty of a void (of action, content, and character development), Police, Adjective is undeniably something special. It manages to create an unadorned space in which real people commit to real-appearing actions, and in the quiet your mind is allowed to wander into more philosophical directions. When the actors do things that are dull and illogical, you are compelled to wonder why.
Cristi proceeds from one scene to the next with his head down, as if weathering a never-ending wind that emanates from his superiors. He does not believe in his assignment, as arresting this embryo with a toke in hand will land the kid in a Romanian prison for 8 years or more, which will ruin his life. And even though the kid is smoking, is he really dealing? Technically, maybe, if someone else shares it. Cristi is aware of the liberal laws elsewhere, and feels the law may change in Romania, so there is no point in going after this case. In particular, the informant attracts more suspicion than the current suspect, and has a clear ulterior motive. This setup calls into question the entire point of law enforcement, which appears for all the world to primarily require looking busy. More to the point, it is about adhering to technical rules that are inapplicable to questions of civic duty or morality. To wit, perhaps the greatest quality of a policeman is his ability to avoid enforcing the law.
The filmmaker has described this work as a ‘police thriller’, one of many examples of dry wit. Police work is procedure-based, but is anything but thrilling, and consists primarily of writing reports. There is no gun. When the cop returns to his apartment, he is not ambushed by an assailant. There is no stupid police chief, no major clues or big breaks, no conspiracy to follow. Throughout there is a strong subtext of the importance of language, with extraordinarily careful use of terminology; it is as though every character is afraid of falling off the earth if they stumble in their endless dialectic battle. And such precise use of dialogue and scene leaves carefully defined edges where you can consider where, or whether, conscience should begin. The characters in Police, Adjective are Romanian, and they must adhere tightly to the laws of the land, as well as language. This is made clear in a truly astounding scene that stretches for 15 minutes where three men argue over dictionary definitions. How director Corneliu Porumboiu managed to make this not only interesting, but hilarious is beyond me. But we are swept along by long and pointless scenes where Cristi follows a group of kids, goes home, writes reports with passages like “For three hours, nothing happened”. He hangs out by a coffee shop and explains his presence to the owner by claiming to be from public works and watching a hole in the ground to make sure nobody falls in; this is accepted without question, and is one of many subtle ways one is introduced to post-Ceausescu Romania.
The central theme is whether it is possible to follow the rules while doing the right thing, and obviously this is impossible. There must be an interpretation, else a descent into madness is inevitable. But our cop is interpreting the law, and in itself this is seen as an evil. His captain patiently, and reasonably, argues that such interpretation removes the law from the realm of impartial fairness and into individual bigotry. This occurs not by logic, but by scrupulous analysis of dictionary definitions of such words as ‘police officer’ and ‘law’. And so follows a long conversation wherein it is made clear that one can be absolutely correct and dead wrong simultaneously. Somewhere along the line, some become so mired in rules that they lose sight of their purpose in society; a cognitive dissonance overwhelms even the most intelligent people. This devotion to following rules to the letter seems a part of the identity of Romania, and contributes more than a little uncertainty as to the nation’s future. After the brutal regime of Ceausescu, during which at least 2 million people were killed, Romania was in economic dire straits; more recently it has gone through a resurgence with significant improvements in living conditions. Still, significant problems remain in the vast empty spaces between the crumbling gray buildings that filled the eye during the running time of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days; an uneasiness with evading strict rules and returning to the recent mire may drive this sentiment. Police, Adjective, as with the rest of the sublime cinema that has come from Romania in recent years, is a particular product of its home country, but expresses ideas that are universal to our world.
Police, Adjective was screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival.