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Dragos Bucur plays an undercover Romanian cop who’s got to enforce a drug law he knows will soon change.

4 out of 4 stars


Police, Adjective

  • Written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
  • Starring Dragos Bucur
  • Classification: 14A

A simultaneously realistic and absurdist examination of police work, the sophomore film from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu ( 12:08 East of Bucharest ) is a simple but challenging film. After winning a jury and Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it has gone on to become an art-house cause célèbre .

The central activity of this ultra-dry comedy involves the audience watching a plainclothes policeman, Cristi (Dragos Bucur), as he keeps an eye on three teenagers who sometimes smoke dope near a school. We sit in on day after day of surveillance and read handwritten reports that scroll slowly down the screen. The scenes are shot in long takes, typically focusing on the cop himself as he hunkers behind corners and pillars, follows his suspects into shabby apartments, or eats lunch by himself. The setting is the filmmaker's hometown of Vaslui, a place of chain-link fences, boxy apartment buildings and streets so drab they make the phrase "non-descript" sound flattering. Police, Adjective is mischievous in its deliberate lack of incident. Instead of gunfire, corpses, conspiracies, takedowns and smart talk, the emphasis is on waiting around, paperwork and linguistic hair-splitting. When Cristi comes home from work, his school-teacher wife Anca (Irina Saulescu) is listening to a loud, YouTube pop song, which she plays repeatedly as he eats his dinner in the next room. Tired and a little drunk, Cristi finds the lyrics distractingly nonsensical.

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"It's an image and a symbol," she says, and tries to explain the song's rhetorical method.

She also corrects the grammar on his police report. The Romanian Academy (the country's language police) has recently changed the word for "not any" from two words to one. The simplification continues to elude Cristi later in the film. Major spoiler alert: The climactic scene involves three cops sitting in an office looking up words in the dictionary.

Written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, Police, Adjective stars Dragos Bucur.

Time stretches and condenses. Cristi finds himself trying to stretch it further, until he can nail the dealer behind the supplier who gives the joints to the kids, or until Romania joins the European Union. Cristi, who recently had a honeymoon in Prague, saw people smoking dope openly on the street and he knows the Romanian law will soon be changed. Before long, Cristi becomes a bit of a truant, like the kids he's watching. He starts avoiding his superior, Captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov, who played the abortionist in the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ), who is pressing for a speedy resolution to the investigation.

Some elements of Police, Adjective are typical of new Romanian cinema: The concern with the fractured Romanian bureaucracy, the excruciating crawl of time, have been themes in Romanian new-wave films. In 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days , the climactic moment involves one woman having an illegal abortion, while her friend is forced to count out the minutes at the birthday party of her boyfriend's relative. In The Death of Mr. Lazarescu , a middle-aged drunk seems to die in real time as he struggles through the maze of the Romanian health-care system.

The implication of the curious title seems to be that the word "police" modifies Romanian reality: police work, police reports, police authorities. Though the film takes place after the fall of communism, the country is living in the paralytic aftermath of a "police" state.

"Shockingly dull" was the oxymoron one dismissive reviewer used for Police, Adjective . The description, while oblivious to the meticulous structure and visual rhythms of Poromboiu's film, is helpful, so long as you understand that dull is a synonym for oppressive. (I recall an unpersuasive pitch for a Canadian history course: "They want you to think it's dull!") Cristi, as a cop, is defined by social structures which are defined by language, in a series of invisible cages that find their justification in words.

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There's a crime against meaning and morality that takes place here, but nothing obvious enough to pop up on Law & Order or CSI: Miami .

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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