Tuesday, 8 March 2011

You May Have Missed... Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009)

Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov and Ion Stoica in Police, Adjective (2009)

Thriller, noun
a novel, play, or movie with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage.

And therein lies the rub. If Police, Adjective is a thriller without the excitment, then is it still a thriller? That sounds like a silly question but it's the one Captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov) would ask now, were he my editor. As it is he's the head lawman who challenges the naïve but morally just Cristi (Dragos Bucur) about the meaning of words such as 'conscience', 'law' and 'police'. It's very easy to think we know the meaning of words, as life is never as simple as academic definition; life has emotion and complexity, thus meanings adapt themselves. Cristi's moral values seem right to us, the audience, as we have spent long stretches of time in his company observing the dull day-to-day routine of surveilling criminals and filing reports. He's tailing a hashish smoking teenager who offers drugs to his friends. To Captain Anghelache that makes him a dealer, but Cristi sees him as a misguided kid and wants to follow the trail back to the source of the drugs. It's as intellectually rigorous and thought provoking as it sounds but as aforementioned, lacking in the excitement department.

See, a film like David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) would be described as a thriller, but when deconstructed comes down to little more than this film - men looking through boxes and writing reports. Sure, Fincher's film is executed with visual wit, exuberant mise-en-scène and a decade-spanning time frame which compacts the action, but as a thriller it lacks what we would typically identify with 'excitement' (noun; a feeling of great enthusiasm or eagerness, something that arouses such a feeling). It's entertaining but not - definitionally speaking - exciting. Both films would be better described under the sub-genre of 'police procedural' but even then Police, Adjective lulls in extreme periods of reality; drab grey walls, rubble-strewn cities and days of cold silence lack the rat-a-tat pace and visual slickness of, say, The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) - a heightened comic strip compared to this film. Porumboiu's approach is to unfold forensic detail in real-time. We literally spend five minutes in a static shot with Cristi watching the kids smoke, and a further couple of minutes of him following them to their houses. Later the camera will pan down a written report so that we may absorb the specifics of his day. This is occasionally interjected by scenes of Cristi at home with his partner, who debates with him the meaning of a song. She says the lyrics are anaphoric, which they are not - and Cristi is perplexed by the intricacies of language. He is confused further when he discovers that there are a group of people (The Romanian Academy) who analyze words and are able to change their meaning ("that's crazy"). It would be difficult for me to describe their relationship as a loving one because life dictates a different meaning to that word than the definition found in a dictionary.

There is political context, but it is unimportant. I know very little of the current political state in Romania, only that it is stagnating and Porumboiu didn't need set designers or location scouters to present a tacky dump of bureaucratic unease and moral division. Cristi sticks out like a sore thumb as the liberal voice that Western audiences will recognise, which makes the denouement all the more chilling as we realize there is some truth to Anghelache's calmly reasoned dissection. The climax of the film is a 20-minute discussion over a Romanian dictionary, and it's gripping. Never overplayed, it's a very deliberate exercise in right vs. wrong which ultimately blurs more lines than is comfortable. Anghelache is a voice of oppression, but also the voice of law (noun; the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and may enforce the imposition of penalties) - morals don't enter into the equation, no matter how much we would like them to. Cristi's initial definition of conscience is likely the one we would also cite, but it can be found nowhere in the dictionary. Indeed, to follow his own moral compass would to to abandon that of the police and as a lawman where does that leave him? The answer is as depressingly obvious to him as it is to us, and it leaves the viewer with important questions not just in the sociopolitical context of Romania, but the world. It may not be exciting but the scope of Police, Adjective is as wide as you're likely to find anywhere. It's a humanist film but I'd probably need a dictionary to understand whether, in the context of the law system presented, that's a reassuring fact or a terrifying one.

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