A gritty, gripping, intelligently made crime thriller, “Traffic Department” takes place on the mean streets of contempo Warsaw and exposes the corruption endemic to the police — and society at large. Polish helmer-scribe Wojtek Smarzowski focuses on seven police officers, members of the eponymous division who are friends as well as colleagues, and whose lives change after one of their number dies under mysterious circumstances. As much a social critique as a genre piece, the pic has already passed 1 million admissions since February in local release, and will soon roar into several prominent international fests, with announcements forthcoming.
As in Smarzowski’s earlier features, “The Wedding” (2004), “The Dark House” (2009) and “Rose” (2011), the multilayered narrative unspools in a nihilistic world where human venality and immorality are the order of the day. One can even see each of the policemen as representing one of the seven deadly sins, although the script never overplays this aspect.
Personifying pride is chief protagonist Sgt. Krol (Bartlomiej Topa), a cocky, independent-minded cop who is having an affair with his partner, Mary (Julia Kijowska). Krol may not be raking in the bribes like his fellow officers, but he’s certainly not averse to some of the department’s dangerous pastimes, such as racing souped-up cars by night through the city streets or sampling the wares — girls, drink and drugs — at local clubs.
When Krol catches his wife, Ewa (Izabela Kuna), talking to her own secret lover, his macho world starts to spin out of control. After a wild night on the town with his buddies, he finds himself framed for the murder of a colleague, greedy Sgt. Lisowski (Marcin Dorocinski), who turns out to be the man who was cuckolding him.
With the cards stacked against him, Krol turns fugitive and sets out to prove his innocence. But as he tries to reconstruct events, it soon becomes clear that for him to uncover the truth would be anathema to his superiors, who are trying to hide a host of other crimes that indicate collusion between police and politicians at the highest levels.
Despite the thoughtful subject matter, the tone is not always deadly serious, although Smarzowski’s daring humor tends toward the cynical. Just as pride must take a fall in the case of Krol, the writer-director engineers an audaciously appropriate comeuppance for the cops who represent lust, unrepentant skirt chaser Sgt. Petrycki (Arkadiusz Jakubik, winner of a Polish Eagle for best supporting actor), and wrath, the racist Sgt. Banas (Eryk Lubos). Working with a group of top thesps, most of whom have appeared in his other films, Smarzowski elicits excellent, in-your-face performances all around; the characters seem to live their jobs in a totally credible fashion.
After the more deliberately paced post-WWII drama “Rose,” “Traffic Department” appears hyper-energized, literally pulsing with traffic lights, turn signals and police sirens. Already known for his muscular, visceral style, Smarzowski ups the ante here with dense cutting that rapidly switches among cell-phone footage, CCTV clips and color-desaturated widescreen images shot in near-natural light by ace lenser Piotr Sobocinski Jr. Most shots are so dense with activity and information that the film repays multiple viewings, bringing out new meanings each time.
Smarzowski is already working on a new feature, “Angel,” based on Jerzy Pilch’s bestseller “The Mighty Angel,” using much of the “Traffic Department” cast.