Police, Adjective (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, Adjective” is a piece of work that will fascinate audiences who are looking for projects outside of the expectations of what a film should be like. It takes risks by challenging viewers to look away from the screen or walk away for a few seconds—or several minutes even—since there are numerous extended shots where nothing happens. But those who dare to stay and stare at every frame are bound to realize that this technique communicates how actual police work might be like: long hours of observing persons of interest, dealing with difficult people within a department, ensuring the paperwork is thorough and accurate. It takes a look at an occupation without the Hollywood decorations.
But the question is always, “What makes this story worth telling?” It isn’t just about police work, you see. It is an examination of power and authority. The plot involves a detective, Cristi (Dragos Bucur), who is surveilling three teenagers who smoke hashish within school grounds. Cristi’s superior suspects that one of them is a dealer and recommends that a sting operation be performed as soon as possible despite a lack of strong evidence. But Cristi is not convinced this is the wisest and most responsible course of action, especially since it is expected that Romanian laws will become more lenient toward drug use in the near future. Cristi argues that by arresting a teenager, it would irrevocably alter the boy’s life. The story is worth telling precisely because we are placed in the shoes of a man who wishes to do what’s right for the citizens he is supposed to protect rather than what is convenient.
The majority of the film is composed of observation. In a way, we are detectives alongside Cristi as he observes where the teenagers go, what they do, who they interact with. This means lengthy takes of focusing on a particular place. We grow familiar with the environment: the random passersby, the noises of animals and chattering around the neighborhood, the worn roads and graffiti-infested buildings. At times the camera moves to a different angle as it retains focus on a certain location. Sometimes the camera does not move at all. At the end of each day, we glance at Cristi’s handwritten report. It is a chance not only to evaluate his level of accuracy and professionalism, but it is also a way for us to catch up on what we missed that day if we just so happen to doze off.
I do not mean to create an impression that the film is boring or tedious. On the contrary, when dialogue is involved, it is quite riveting and occasionally amusing. For example, observe carefully how Cristi interacts with his wife (Irina Saulescu), how they discuss lyrics of a song and new grammatical rules. On the surface, one may think it is a loveless union because they do not express outward or obvious passion toward one another. But look closer. There is patience in their relationship, an openness, an impression that they see each other equally. Devotion is communicated in a different way and I found it refreshing.
Another standout is Cristi’s unforgettable interaction with his captain (Vlad Ivanov). And it involves a dictionary. It summarizes perfectly what the story is about. Yes, on one level, it is about the clash between adhering to strict rules and regulations (traditionalism) versus allowing flexibility to influence and perhaps change current laws (progressivism). But it is also about language—language in the words, in the images, and in the long pauses. I go as far as to say that these languages, collectively, aim to speak to our emotions and what we know about how the world works versus how it should work. “Police, Adjective,” a rich film despite its demanding approach, a depressing look, and seemingly nondescript goings-on.