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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Dec. 8, 2009 | 11:40 PM

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In the press materials for his new film, “Police, Adjective,” Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu claims that his focus was on “the way we use and abuse words.”  In the film’s climactic scene, Cristi, young detective protagonist is forced by his superior to read the definitions of several words aloud from a Romanian dictionary.  Among them are words like law, conscience, and yes, police.  Such a direct engagement with the official meaning of words is meant to force Cristi to question his own concepts of how he’s performing his official duties as a cop.  If all of that sounds methodical and somewhat tedious, it’s supposed to be.

There are exciting things happening in Romanian cinema these days.  Porumboiu’s first feature, “12:08: East of Bucharest” won the Camera D’Or for a debut feature at Cannes in 2006, and 2007 saw the release of the globally acclaimed abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.”  Unfortunately, “Police, Adj” is more interesting in theory than in its actual execution.  What Porumboiu has done with this self described “post-crime genre” movie is to give us a police procedural in all of its excruciating detail, but without the payoff of seeing the criminals brought to justice.  Add on top of this a liberal dose of Cristi wrestling with both his conscience and the meaning of his conscience, and you’re left with a film that’s easier to admire than to love.

The film opens with the first of many shots of the young Romanian cop, Cristi, following a suspect through the streets of a Romanian city.  He pauses to pick up a cigarette butt and sniffs it.  Eventually he makes his way back to police headquarters, for a visit with his superior where we get the set up for the film’s meager story.  Two brothers and a girl have been smoking hash at the local high school.  Naturally, this is against the law, and it’s Cristi’s job as a cop to make a bust, preferably for dealing, not just possession.  Cristi thinks that the Romanian drug laws are as out of date as Ceausescu, and offers evidence of his recent idyllic honeymoon in Prague as proof of a more civilized society.  He believes that the laws will soon change, and that he shouldn’t ruin this poor kid’s life over a couple of joints.  His boss wants to organize a sting operation right away, but reluctantly agrees to let Cristi tail the kids for a few days to see if he can gather more evidence.

So it begins.  As Cristi follows the kids, we follow Cristi.  We watch as Cristi smokes cigarettes and watches the kids come and go from the girl’s house.  We watch as Cristi orders hot tea to fight off the cold Romanian air.  We watch Cristi try to get his friends at the archives and passport bureau to aid his investigation.  We watch as he writes reports of his tedious pursuits.  We actually watch him doze off as a secretary types on her computer for several minutes as he waits for his boss to read his police report. As these events unfold in real time for the majority of the movie, we’re left with no doubt about how absurdly monotonous police work can be. 

All of this leads to the climactic scene with the Police Chief where Cristi’s moral dilemma is apparently solved with the help of a trusty Romanian dictionary.  This scene also drags on for way too long, but is made slightly more compelling by the presence of Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist from “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” as the chief.  His arguments are apparently persuasive enough to convince Cristi to draw up the plan for the sting he’s been resisting for the whole film, and the wheels of Romanian justice continue to turn.  Or do they?

The film is not without its charms.  Shot in Poromboiu’s hometown of Vaslui, the director obviously has a great feel for the locations.  Cristi takes a break from his police pursuit late in the movie and we get to watch as he plays a doubles game of foot-tennis, which looks to be a Romanian soccer-tennis hybrid, and there’s an amusing scene midway through in which Cristi and his wife attempt to parse meaning from the lyrics of a truly awful Romanian pop song.  But ultimately, the film takes far too long to get to where it’s going, and gives us precious little in terms of dramatic stakes.  Poromboiu is a talent to watch, but Police, Adjective captures its subject matter a little too well.  In Romanian with English Subtitles.Opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 23rd.

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