Ideas, not action, drive wry Romanian cop drama ‘Police, Adjective’
If you expect a lot of shootouts and car chases from your police dramas, if you can’t imagine a crime investigation that’s not an action thriller, then Police, Adjective is not for you. Low-key in the extreme, this police drama from Romania unfolds at such a glacial pace, it often recalls those experimental Warhol movies of the ’60s which were all about the depiction of absolutely nothing. But viewers willing to pay attention and get into its slow, spare, real-life, real-time rhythm will discover a sly black comedy from director Corneliu Poromboiu, depending more on a gradually building intensity of ideas than conventional action.
In a monochromatic urban neighborhood in modern-day Bucharest, a young plainclothes police detective called Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is conducting a one-man stake-out operation. The object of his surveillance is a teenage boy who leaves the high school campus every afternoon with two friends, another boy and a girl, to smoke hashish in a little park behind the kindergarten.
Cristi can find no evidence that his suspect is selling the drugs he shares with his friends, nor can he discover where the hash is coming from. In the detective’s viewpoint, those would be crimes worth pursuing; three kids standing around smoking hash is not. The only reason he’s on this stake-out is that the other boy has informed to the cops, or “squealed,” as Cristi puts it. (“Denounced,” Cristi’s boss corrects him.) Cristi suspects a conflict between the two friends over the girl.
His supervisors want Cristi to launch a sting operation and nab the kids in the act. Cristi doesn’t want to do it; the minimum sentence is three and a half years in jail, which the detective thinks will ruin the boy’s life for no good reason. Besides, he argues, Romania is the only country in Europe where a person can still go to jail simply for smoking dope in public. In another two or three years, he’s convinced, it won’t even be a crime in Bucharest any more.
Most of the film consists of Cristi skulking around the same two or three checkpoints every day: following the kids to school, lurking behind a totemic cinderblock tower to watch them smoke, harvesting the butts for evidence, writing up his reports. Shots are drawn out to an almost trancelike degree. Energy accrues only in the random, often absurdist conversations Cristi has with his fellow cops, his boss, and, in one extremely surreal encounter with his wife, a language teacher, whose obsession with a romantic ballad she plays over and over on her computer evolves into a debate about metaphor.
No, the tension in Poromboiu’s film (and there’s more than we expect) comes not from crimes committed—or lack thereof—but from Cristi’s struggle with his own conscience over what he ought to do. And this struggle becomes more acute in terms of the subtle irony with which Poromboiu portrays the state of Romanian society in the aftermath of the Ceausescu dictatorship. From the dull pea-green paint, busted metal lockers and outmoded CRT computer monitors inside the police station, to discussions on how to market Bucharest as a sexy destination to the free world, to the paternalistic hierarchy of Cristi’s bosses determined to stick to the most narrow interpretation of the law possible to avoid any messy complications, Poromboiu depicts a society not yet capable of shaking off its tyrannical past and joining the 21st Century.
In most conventional crime stories, upholding the letter of the law is motivation enough for the story that follows. But this film delves into the ways letters can be remixed, words misinterpreted, how language itself can become a barrier, banishing personal “moral law” to the outer limits beyond the specific letter of the law. (In one wry, oddly compelling climactic sequence, Cristi’s chief calls for a dictionary to support his definition of what the department’s legal responsibilities are.)
In a strict, bureaucratic society, the consequences of venturing into this gray zone of personal morality can be severe. But nothing evolves, Poromboiu suggests, until the consequences of ignoring one’s personal moral law becomes even more unbearable.
With Dragos Bucur. Written and directed by Corneliu Poromboiu. An IFC release. Not rated. 113 minutes. In Romanian with English subtitles.