The title of writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s film, which won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes in 2009, refers to the dictionary definition of “police”, but as an adjective, rather than as a noun or a verb. So, theoretically, Police, Adjective is “a film involving criminal happenings resolved through the ingenuity of a police officer.”
This Romanian satire follows Cristi, a policeman who spends a week or so trailing a teenager called Victor, who is believed to be supplying hashish to his friends. In the course of his investigation, Cristi comes upon a crisis of conscience.
Victor could spend three to seven years in jail for violating a law that Cristi expects will be changed within a matter of months, and so arresting and charging the young man would arguably ruin his life over a minor infraction. Thus, Porumboiu’s aim is to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Romanian police.
He doesn’t condemn Cristi’s moral obfuscation, with leading man Dragos Bucur depicting him as a generally good person who still has to go through the motions of his work even as he begins to question them. Instead, he depicts a legal system in which it is almost impossible to get things done.
For instance, in one extended sequence of the film, Cristi requires some fact checking and some research, in order to present his investigation to his superior the following day. He has to arrange with three different people to carry out various checks and administrative duties for him, one of whom is resolutely uncooperative.
Unfortunately for some, Porumboiu’s approach is to transfer all of the frustration of working out this minor case to the audience. The film is dialogue-lite, which would be perfectly fine if much of the story was being told through the visuals. There’s some impressive stuff to be had from the long takes and the policy of holding the close-up pretty much as an alien concept. But in a film that lasts 113 minutes, the mixture is one part plot development and four parts ephemera.
It’s still a deceptively quick 113 minutes, given how much time is given over to lingering shots of Cristi following random teenagers. The intention in distancing the camera from our protagonist is clearly voyeuristic. We’re watching the watchman, as befits a film about just how inadequate a police force can possibly be.
Cristi’s conflict, and the film’s, is pretty much of grammatical difference. In this matter, Cristi tries to see the law as being as malleable as rules in grammar, subject to syntactic changes over the years, as illustrated by a dinnertime discussion of his case with his teacher wife. For the film’s part, its cinematic grammar eschews the traditional action film tropes of police films by being more of an inaction film.
Remember that scene at the end of Hot Fuzz, where Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright send up action movie endings by showing the administrative aftermath of the carnage? This film goes one step further, keeping it deadpan by having a full ten minute sequence of Cristi roaming the streets in fruitless pursuit, and then showing his laboured paperwork about everything that happened that day.
It’s all very dry, and the closest it comes to excitement is in a very theatrical and dialogue-heavy closing scene, introducing the ace up the film’s sleeve,a stunning performance from Vlad Ivanov as the bull-headed police captain. He whacks a dictionary on the desk and begins defining the film in rigid terms, demonstrating the close-mindedness of authority that the film was always intending to skewer.
The captain obviously wants this case wrapping up quickly, and having seen Cristi’s labours, you realise with a shiver that there must be more serious investigations, related to capital crimes, that are even more complicated than this. Of the laborious dialogue scenes in the movie, this is the one that properly hits the mark, finally rewarding a persistent audience’s interest.
Police, Adjective satirises the bureaucracy of police work by covering the story that would fall between scenes in most cop movies. Not a single bullet is fired and no punches are thrown. It’s easy to find that some of the humour might have been lost in translation, because it’s about as dry as chewing sand. But, hey, at least it does give you something to chew over.
Extras are pretty scant, but there’s an interview with Porumboiu that pretty much elucidates the message he was getting at when he made the film. He also speaks of the two separate real life incidents that inspired the film, related to him by a police officer friend, and admits that the film has either been loved or hated by audiences, with little in between, due to its leisurely pace and satirical subversion.
There’s also an amusing trailer. There’s no way to mis-sell the film in the way I had expected after seeing it, because there just isn’t the footage to make it look like other police procedural action flicks. I’d expected something like that YouTube mash-up that paints Mary Poppins as a horror film.
However, it does manage to incorporate almost every bit of dialogue in the film in evading the feeling of how dry it actually is. A functional trailer for a film that’s a hard sell in almost every sense.