Zeitgeist Films // 2009 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // August 25th, 2011
What does the word conscience mean to you?
No guns get pulled, nobody gets pushed, punched, or even yelled at, so it's not quite what one might expect from a police procedural, but Police, Adjective is still very good. The latest film from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) details the mundane world of one police officer and reveals the conflict between the rule of law and one's personal moral code. He does it in quiet, linguistic terms without the need for car chases or explosions, and the result is quite refreshing.
Cristi (Dragos Bucur, The Way Back), a small town police officer, is on the case of a young student who is suspected of smoking hash. While a big crime in Romania, it is overlooked in much of the rest of Europe, and Cristi's conscience has gotten in the way of his legal obligation. Technically, he knows his obligation to the force, but he simply cannot bring himself to ruin a young man's life over something so small. This dilemma and his expression of it causes his supervisor to question whether he's actually fit to stay on the job.
Odd as it may seem for a cop movie, linguistics plays a huge role in Police, Adjective, and the title refers to the dictionary definition of the word. Porumboiu's quiet but tense study of what it means to be both a cop and a person begins very simply and, honestly, pretty dull as we watch Cristi watch this boy, whom we never actually meet. This means a lot of coffee, a lot of cigarettes, and a lot of walking, but not a whole lot of action. The director effectively sets up that Cristi's position is not the exciting cop life we see on television. It's a series of mundane, monotonous assignments. This drudgery gives the character plenty of time to think, and he begins to wonder whether this kid is actually doing anything wrong. Recently married to Anca (Irina Saulescu, Mirrors), they honeymooned in Prague, where they witnessed plenty of people smoking hash openly on the street, while the police simply looked the other way. Cristi understands the Romanian law, but he also knows it will soon change to fall in line with their neighbors. Until that happens, though, the kid is committing an offense that will sentence him to seven years in prison. Cristi is afraid of what that will do to him in the long term. As he tells his superior, "I don't want to meet him when he gets out."
None of this sits well with Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), said superior, who is a true bureaucrat absolutely in love with the rule of law. To him, the law is hard and fast, with no exceptions and no crises of conscience. His position on the subject is logically sound, but he came up during the "bad days" in Romania under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, when the nation was a true police state. Anghelache is always willing to listen to Cristi, but is totally unwavering in his stance on the matter. Law is law and it has nothing to do with morals. In the surprisingly powerful climactic scene, he listens calmly to Cristi's protests and then brings out a dictionary to make his point. I never would have thought that literal readings from a Romanian dictionary would make compelling entertainment, but here we are. His argument is convincing, but he also show that he's not the man of pure logic he claims. When he gets Cristi to read the entry for "police," one definition puts a kink in his thinking in a way that's damning to his argument. Instead of accepting it as he expects from Cristi, he extrapolates his own definition and ends the discussion.
I like very much how the film sows the seeds of linguistics into the story, seeds that blossom in the climax. Cristi is a man of few words and simple thoughts, but his wife is a deeper thinker. In one scene, she sits at her computer watching a music video while Cristi sits nearby, drinking a beer and complaining about why the band doesn't just get to the point. After calling him a drunk, she explains to him the concepts of symbolism and abstract thinking. While he doesn't seem to care, these issues worm their way into his brain. Later again, over dinner, she gets into more detail about the intricacies of the Romanian language and how the same word, under a different context, means something very different. With this knowledge, both for him and for the audience, it becomes easier to understand the importance of the climax. It's a linguistics game, to be sure, but a subtle and well-played one. I suspect that an advanced knowledge of Romanian would make the film play even better, but it works fine with just the subtitles.
Police, Adjective is a tiny story told extremely well. While the above may hint at spoilers, the excitement comes from how Porumboiu builds to the climax. He's efficient and logical; every move makes sense. At no point does Cristi show any strong emotion, but it's easy to sense the crisis that mounting in his head. This is a dilemma I'm sure nearly every police officer contends with at some point in their careers because, unlike most jobs, their decisions affect individuals and families directly. Enforcing laws that make no sense is not an exclusively Romanian issues, and Porumboiu makes it feel rightly universal.
Bucur plays Cristi as stoic, but demoralized and desperate for a clear conscience, something he seems unable to achieve in his current position. He stands in the middle of the two main supporting characters, his wife and his supervisor, and contrasts them both well. Saulescu's role is small but vital; she gives life to Bacur's morose Cristi. Anghelache is a bureaucratic monster, a calm and collected one, but an uncaring monster nonetheless. Ivanov is an excellent actor and the quiet in his execution is almost eerie and totally intimidating. A good show from all the performers.
Zeitgeist Films presents Police, Adjective in a good-looking, but bare bones edition. The image looks good, representing the grays of the Romanian streets very nicely. The colors, such as they are, look really good and the transfer is perfectly good. The sound isn't great, but it's passable. There are no extras.
There are people who find Police, Adjective slow and drab. I enjoyed every aspect of it, though. The performances are great, the direction is solid, and the writing is superb. This is a movie that will have value in repeat viewings, especially for grammar nerds such as myself.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Romanian)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated