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Detective Work January 5, 2010

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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A dictionary is the true offender in Corneliu Porumbiou’s latest feature, Police, Adjective (2009)

I’ve been enjoying a short streak of recent detective films. Over winter break, I saw Sherlock Holmes and Police, Adjective while catching up with old friends. I remember watching as a kid the animated series, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, in which, as the souvenir DVD puts it, “a defrosted Holmes teams up with a robotic Watson and a female inspector Lestrade to stop the criminal rampage of Moriarty’s clone.” It’s as awesomely ridiculous as it sounds. So Ritchie’s film, with its testosterone-enhanced formula of fisticuffs and forbidden arts, doesn’t strike me as being that sacrilegious, though I do think that giving the title sleuth psychic powers does defeat the purpose of the genre. I won’t dwell any further on Sherlock, which has had its ample share of reviews. Its understated contemporary from Romania, on the other hand, could use some more press.

Corneliu’s Porumbiou’s Police, Adjective is the arthouse antithesis of Sherlock Holmes. There is no violence, sex, or special effects to draw in viewers—there may not even be a crime. Nonetheless, the film has captured numerous prizes at film festivals across the world including the 2009 Cannes. If not by the lure of the chase, by what?

Police unfolds against a featureless setting of a suburb in post-totalitarian Romania. Its hero is a young narc named Cristi (Dragos Bucur), on watch for a sixteen year old boy suspected of smoking pot. Cristi’s superiors, the hangovers of a more repressive regime, want to close the case with a sting operation, but the idea of arresting a child does not sit well with Cristi. The impasse between the individual and the state is, of course, nothing new. What distinguishes Police from other films is the way it presents that quandary, not through the ritual exaggeration of inner torment or outer violence, but as the title suggests, through clever dialogue exposing the contradictory meanings and ends of language.

The actual stakeout is probably the least interesting aspect of the film. It is what happens in between that gives the film its offbeat intellectual humor. Erudite terms like “anaphora” and “negative pronominal adjectives” spice up everyday conversations about pop songs and police reports. In a town where folks have little to do, people take their words and their work very seriously. Cristi’s wife (Irina Salescu) is a kindergarten teacher who indulges in the symbolic dimensions of language (her knowledge of her subject is worthy of a professorship). Cristi, by contrast, while oblivious to metaphor (‘even if I were sober, I’d still be clueless’), is methodical in his collection of data. As the epistolary record of his handwritten reports make clear, what matters to him is getting it right.

With an unreliable informant and equally useless bureaucrats, however, getting it right takes longer than the docket will allow. In his climactic meeting with the Captain, Cristi tries to stall the police sting: “In Prague,” he points out, the drug “is smoked openly on the streets, and the police look the other way.” He adds that he doesn’t want the complete ruin of a child on his conscience. Unsatisfied by Cristi’s answer, his boss (Vlad Ivanov) asks him to define conscience which is written down on a chalkboard. He then sends for a dictionary, having Cristi read aloud the entries for words like “conscience” and “law.” Smoking pot is illegal, argues the Boss. It doesn’t matter whether the smoker is an adult or a child or whether the offense may become legal in the future. It is Cristi’s job as a cop to enforce the law (as it exists now), not to act on vague instincts.

It dawns on Cristi that the dictionary, useful as it is, can’t exercise conscience, and that the meanings of words are also policed, whether by scholars at the Romanian Academy or by government officials. The dictionary doesn’t know that the criminal in question is just a boy, that the crime in question may be simply a matter of irresponsibility. Its definitions don’t accommodate Cristi’s sense of the same terms and the contexts in which they might or might not apply. Yet he also realizes that definitions provide stability for men like the Captain, who rely on the law to protect them from shady characters like conscience.

Shaking the crime procedural of its absolute criminal, Police, Adjective redirects its energies towards a Kafkaesque investigation of the moral and existential crisis of conscience. In reversing these priorities, Porumbiou opts for a rather drab mise en scène and an unhurried pace that borders on irritating. A shot of Cristi slurping a bowl of soup lasts for five minutes, an eternity in movie time. Yet the pacing serves the film’s ultimate purpose in making that necessary and noble arrest of the mind.

Watch the trailer:

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