Police, Adjective

To make sense of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, we might start at the end. In the final scene, while planning a sting operation on three teenagers, the police captain says: “Just communicate with each other and watch out for signals.” Easier said than done, particularly in a film whose central concern is arguably that communication is anything but easy, that the laws of language are subject to endless debates around nuance, inflection, meaning. It’s a darkly comic note to end on and a crowning example of Porumboiu’s satire; for the simplicity of the captain’s remark belies the impossibility of its aims.

Police, Adjective – as its title suggests – draws from the cinematic tradition of the police procedural while turning the form on its head. Cristi, a young cop, is tasked with tailing a group of teenagers, smokers who deal in minor quantities of hashish. Much to the chagrin of his no-nonsense, draconian captain, Cristi is caught in a crisis of conscience, not wanting to arrest and ruin the life of a kid for such a trivial crime. Besides, he thinks the laws on smoking cannabis will be loosened in a few years anyway, as they are in Prague; Romania is just a few years behind the times.

Porumboiu is often hailed as a master of post-Communist realism, and in Police, Adjective this rings true to an almost maddening degree. This is a film that replaces the swollen unreality of high-octane action for a more mundane, and more real, anti-drama. Plot is not propelled forward by car chases and shootouts, but proceeds compelling alongside Cristi as he begrudgingly surveilles his subjects, carrying out driving and passport checks, filing reports and jumping through an interminable sequence of bureaucratic hoops. Indeed, the film’s climax is a 20-minute-long sequence of lexical tennis in the captain’s office as Cristi’s moral dilemma is challenged, and ultimately, crushed through a painstaking sequence of readings from the dictionary.

But this is not simply realism for realism’s sake. The rich choreography of the scene layers Porumboiu’s deadpan verisimilitude with an oily artifice. As the police captain and his two recalcitrant colleagues sit around a bowl of fake fruit, like figures in a Baroque painting, Porumboiu invites us to notice the film’s playful artistry. Later, Cristi is asked to read out the dictionary definition for the word “police”. “A novel or film,” reads Cristi, “involving criminal happenings that are in some degree mysterious, resolved in the end through the ingenuity of a police officer or detective.” It’s a masterful stroke of reflexivity, offering a tantalising suggestion that Cristi too might find an ingenious way to wriggle free. Any hopes are dashed however as a second definition is read out: “Of police states or regimes – supported by the police and exercising control through repressive methods.”

In Police, Adjective, this undercurrent of state repression is forever hiding in plain sight, in the top-down hierarchy of the police station, the draconian drug laws, the inevitable submission of the individual to the intransigent state. Cristi appears stuck inside a political system inherited from Romania’s communist past, one which is muted, indirect, out of shot, the ideal conditions in which state repression can thrive. Porumboiu’s choice of setting – provincial Romania, far from the country’s capital or “Little Paris” as the prosecutor calls it – and diligent use of props – glitchy computer screens, drab interiors – are constant reminders that the old system is very much alive.

Porumboiu, however, is not simply interested in where Romania sits on its journey out of communism. His interest lies in the separateness of individuals that live within a single system. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s central scene as Cristi as his wife Anca debate rhetorical devices in the lyrics of a communist-era Romanian song. Unlike Anca, Cristi is irked by the song’s heavy use of metaphor: “I don’t understand,” he drawls drunkenly. “If they wanted to say infinity, why didn’t they just say it directly?” It is not bullets but lines like these that carry meaning in Porumboiu’s cop movie. For “saying it directly” might be the perfect definition of what Porumboiu is doing in Police, Adjective and an even better definition of what he’s not.

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