Movie review: ‘Police, Adjective’

A police drama that takes its time to find meaning in everyday patrol of the streets

Feb. 26, 2010, Austin American-Statesman  

“Police, Adjective” is a slow-mover with snap reflexes. Eating dinner, reading aloud from the dictionary —these activities are the apex of physical commotion in Corneliu Porumboiu’s glacial but transfixing cop procedural, which follows a tiny, dead-end case with a dispassionate eye and a quietly bristling pulse.

It’s a slog, but in a good way. Its thematic force is a cumulative wave that rises out of the spindly narrative. The hero is Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young cop in a small Romanian town who’s assigned to bust a teenager for merely supplying, not selling, hash to his friends. Cristi, a pragmatist with a conscience, has no stomach for a petty arrest that will, in his view, ruin a kid’s life. His superiors pressure him to conduct a sting operation and haul the teenager in. Cristi refuses.

Most of the movie unfurls in painstaking real time. Cristi tails the teens and watches them smoke joints from afar. He paces. He buys a cup of tea. He waits, watches. We are with him the whole time. So much for the rote American crime thriller of slash cuts, foot chases, guns and a rumbling soundtrack. There’s no musical score. Shots are long and unbroken and never in close-up.

This sort of parched, paint-drying realism is nothing new in film. From Chantal Akerman’s experimental cinema (“Jeanne Dielman …”) to the recent formalism of Carlos Reygadas (“Silent Light”), the detached fascination of quotidian routine — the minutiae, the tedium — has served drama searching for deeper meaning, something to penetrate the passive watching experience and linger long after.

Next to the cryptic title, hints about what “Police, Adjective” is about creep in during seemingly throwaway scenes, such as one in which Cristi and his wife argue about the meaning of lyrics in a vapid pop song and, later, when his wife finds a grammatical error in one of his police reports. By examining language and the technical definition of words — not our subjective spins on meaning — the movie slyly critiques the inflexible laws of old communist Romania and their slipping relevance in the post-Nicolae Ceausescu era.

In this, the movie is of a piece with Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest” and Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” signal works in the so-called Romanian new wave. Times are tough there, and the films depict a nation fettered by bureaucracy, broken, displayed in moribund shades of crumbling concrete, barren streets and autumnal skies.

“Police, Adjective” takes its time, becoming a marvel of pacing; its temporal patience is practically brazen. It doesn’t get you until its extended, single-shot climax in the office of Cristi’s flinty captain (Vlad Ivanov, mesmerizing). The movie comes alive with cerebral excitement during a verbal exchange that’s beautifully tempered and intelligent. Cristi is dressed down, forced to recite from a fat dictionary as the captain, now a Draconian schoolmaster, snaps, “Do you know the meaning of the words you use?”

The answer is at once expected and heartbreaking.

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