Making Waves Review: Police, Adjective (2009)

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Cast: Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Ion Stoica
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Country: Romania
Genre: Comedy | Crime | Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Making Waves Romanian Film Festival, which runs from November 29th to December 3rd. For more information visit FilmLinc.com and follow FilmLinc on Twitter at @FilmLinc.

“Dialectics, that’s what it’s called,” professes the pedantic chief whose penchant for dictionary definition lends Police, Adjective its name. “Do you know what that means?” He says it as though it were simple. Meaning and its malleability is central to Corneliu Porumboiu’s second feature, a film that at first glance—with its foregrounded formalist concerns and sustained sequences of silence—might seem the distinct directorial answer to the “screenplay movie” that was 12:08 East of Bucharest. But to label either movie as indulging one of Porumboiu’s roles above the other is as to ignore one definition of a word in favour of another: he is a filmmaker, and this a film, that functions as the synthesis of several elements all at once.

Meaning and its malleability is central to Corneliu Porumboiu’s second feature, a film that at first glance—with its foregrounded formalist concerns and sustained sequences of silence—might seem the distinct directorial answer to the “screenplay movie” that was 12:08 East of Bucharest.

police_adjective_2009_3The chief speaks of dialectics, of course, in the Socratic sense, seeking to extend to the point of absurdity the conscientious contentions of Cristi, his detective, whose disinclination to prosecute a cannabis-smoking teenager is the source of the film’s drama. He, Cristi—albeit unknowingly—invokes instead Hegel, his desperate desire to reconcile his own opinions with the word of the law contributing the integral tension to this textbook exercise in narrative minimalism. It’s a movie many might find meandering, its subversive take on the police procedural making for surveillance scenes whose lack of action works to return realism to a genre that’s rarely relied on it. But, as a character quips at one point, “I said I was waiting, not that there was nothing up”. These inherently voyeuristic visualisations aren’t only amusingly empty answers to mainstream movies’ equivalent scenes; they pleasingly play with perspective too: were we with Hitchcock, Haneke even, we might see things through someone’s eyes. That we observe the observer, additionally, introduces another area of interest altogether.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a sentiment these scenes invite, and around which the film itself eventually comes to revolve. Never allowing our perspective to align with that of his presumed protagonist, Porumboiu’s open ethical questions make us the mediators, caught between Crist’s valid points and his superiors’. There’s a scene mid-way through the movie wherein he and his wife debate the meanings of a pop song: Porumboiu plays it—and us—perfectly, first letting us hear the words, and then making us listen. It’s emblematic of the movie at large, and how it takes the same approach to the law and our absent acceptance of it and those who enforce it. “You’re not qualified to comment on the law,” he’s coldly told in an early scene. Should we need to be?

It’s equally the impact of Dragoş Bucur’s hunched, huffing delivery as it is the dour lines themselves that lend him the airs of a film noir protagonist in the making: see how he seems almost embarrassed to speak of his conscience, how—most notably in an early meeting, chronicled in a single six minute shot—he struggles to meet the eye of his challenger.

police_adjective_2009_4Obsessed as it is with philosophy and semantics, it might be easy to mistake Police, Adjective for austere intellectualism; Porumboiu’s genius, though, is in rendering text as subtext. The meaning emerges as though incidental from the material, subject arising from story as though it were something conceived of as more than merely a means to an ideological end. Cristi exists as a character first, a cipher second. It’s equally the impact of Dragoş Bucur’s hunched, huffing delivery as it is the dour lines themselves that lend him the airs of a film noir protagonist in the making: see how he seems almost embarrassed to speak of his conscience, how—most notably in an early meeting, chronicled in a single six minute shot—he struggles to meet the eye of his challenger. Here is a man standing tall for what he believes in, being made to feel little for doing so.

Never is that more agonisingly apparent than in the extraordinary eighteen minute unbroken take where he finally meets the chief he’s been avoiding, after being made to wait with the secretary like a misbehaved schoolchild sent to the headmaster. “Are you sick?” he’s asked with mock concern as he explains his issues with the command to condemn a kid to three and a half years in jail for smoking a joint. “Don’t you know the meanings of the words you use?” Dialectics, of course, as the chief might find if he ordered Cristi to look it up as he does with so many other words in that awfully awkward scene, was appropriated by Marx in the theories on which Ceausescu built his Romanian regime. Police, Adjective, in the end, isn’t so much absorbed with meanings as it is with the peril of ignoring the inconvenient ones.

[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. Police, Adjective’s meaning emerges as though incidental from the material, subject arising from story as though it were something conceived of as more than merely a means to an ideological end.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.