Romania's Police, Adjective speaks softly

Director Corneliu Porumboiu relies on subtlety to build tension, emotion

Whoever said movies were like real life with the boring parts removed never saw Police, Adjective. Not that the Romanian cop drama lacks interest; but where most Hollywood law enforcement films cut from shootout to chase scene, Police, Adjective stares down the tedium of surveillance, stakeouts and bureaucratic red tape.

For long stretches, including the introductory scenes, Police, Adjective simply shows plainclothes officer Cristi (Dragos Bucur) following a high schooler through the neighborhoods of a mid-sized Romanian city. Drab, dismal colors and architecture so dominate the post-Soviet streets that when they pass some flower booths, the burst of colors proves nearly breathtaking. Cristi’s investigation hinges on a dilemma: A young informant has fingered the 16-year-old suspect for using and offering pot to his friends. Cristi knows the teenager, if busted, could spend seven years in jail for possession, effectively ruining his life for a crime that’s no longer illegal in much of Europe.

Director of the dark comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest, filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu avoids opportunities to build tension like Alfred Hitchcock and instead emphasizes Cristi’s personal isolation. His home life proves similarly deficient of emotional attachment: In one scene, he eats dinner in his tiny kitchen while his wife (Irina Saulescu) listens to a love song on the computer. The contrast between the romantic lyrics and the dreary surroundings couldn’t be starker. Later, Cristi and his wife discuss the meaning of the song’s words in one of the film’s many discussions of language and personal conduct.

The themes come together in a long, tense confrontation with Cristi’s commanding officer (before which we see Cristi and his partner waiting, at length, in an outer office). No one raises his voice and much relies on reading dictionary definitions of words such as conscience. With its clash of authority, personal morality, and a smidgen of masculine posturing, the sequence resembles a taut David Mamet scene in Romanian.

The title can help audiences unpack the film’s intentions. As an adjective, the word police can be positive, as in police officer, or ominous, as in police state. Police, Adjective implies that in post-Ceausescu Romania, the criminal justice system has the potential to be either.