New Romanian cinema gains further impetus with Corneliu Porumboiu’s cerebral non-thriller “Police, Adjective.” With his 2006 Camera d’Or winner, “12:08 East of Bucharest,” Porumboiu established himself as a witty writer-helmer with a superb ear for dialogue and an interest in the broader ramifications of truth. His follow-up, about a contempo cop’s unwilling surveillance of a teen suspected of selling pot, takes things further, aiming a laser-sharp intellect and a deeply considered understanding of language at themes of authority and the residue of totalitarianism. Euro and bicoastal arthouse play is assured, though some auds may find the actionless passages taxing.
The deliberately paced opening — following teen Victor (Radu Costin) as he’s trailed by undercover cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur, “Boogie”) through crumbling sections of the north-eastern city of Vasliu — immediately sets up an unspoken critique of the country’s post-communist stagnation. It’s the inability, or refusal, to move forward, in all aspects of Romanian society, that’s the real subject of the movie.
Cristi is a good cop, if a bit weary, and recently married to Anca (Irina Saulescu). His superior, Nelu (Ion Stoica), has him shadowing Victor in hopes of finding out where the teen’s weed comes from, but in the course of his investigation, Cristi realizes Victor’s just a kid who occasionally lights up with some friends. Though Nelu accepts Cristi’s findings, he’s unwilling to listen to the argument that Romanian law will soon fall in line with pan-European practices, so what’s the point of ruining a kid’s life for something that will soon be more or less legal?
Porumboiu uses his camera rationally, as a surveillance tool, yielding long passages in which little apparently happens. Victor’s life, like that of most teens, is not exciting, and Cristi’s tailing becomes a drudgery. Still, Porumboiu manages to hold the viewer’s attention with tiny details, and by building sympathy for Cristi and showing the cop’s growing sympathy for Victor.
An illuminating finale with police captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov) not only justifies all this careful pacing and deliberate buildup, but also rewards the viewer with one of those rare revelatory moments, exposing the full strength of what has preceded it. An earlier scene between Cristi and Anca plants the seed of what’s to come, and how questions of language, and the parsing of definitions, can be manipulated and turned against their true purpose.
That’s where “Police, Adjective” is so extraordinary: Porumboiu is one of the few helmers working today who so completely understands both the power of language and the power of visuals. He brings this intelligence to bear on the corrupting influence of a system that exerted control for generations, arguing that such systems die very hard deaths.
Perfs show the naturalness that’s perhaps the sole common trait of the so-called Romanian New Wave. Ivanov, the chilling abortionist from “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” appears only towards the end, but the studied calm and confidence in his power are thrilling and devastating to watch.
The camera calls as little attention to itself as possible, generally maintaining (like Cristi) an observational stance. However, every inch of the frame contains something meaningful, as when the fixed camera holds onto the image of Cristi and Anca separated by a wall. Version caught in Bucharest was screened digitally, before sound and color correction were completed, but was otherwise a finished version.