by Matt Fagerholm
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Romanian cinema makes a good case for why Romania is not the greatest place to live. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu followed an ailing gentleman on his endless journey through a heath care system that’s ill-equipped to help him. Cristin Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days followed a woman on her dangerous journey to arrange an illegal abortion for her friend. And now, in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, a young police officer is pressured by his boss to arrest a seemingly innocent boy. It’s highly unlikely that the follow-up to New York, I Love You will be Bucharest, te iubesc.
What makes Romanian cinema so uniquely powerful, apart from its startlingly bleak national portrait, is its uncompromising minimalism. And what distinguishes Porumboiu’s work from that of his fellow peers is a sly sense of humor that occasionally warms his cold landscapes like a welcome bonfire. His comedy, however, is often deeply satirical of his society’s shortcomings. In his excellent 2006 debut feature 12:08 East of Bucharest, nearly an hour is devoted to an amateur television show where citizens debate over whether the 1989 revolution (which overthrew communist dictator Ceausescu) indeed happened. The host orders his cameramen to use tripods that they don’t know how to operate, while his guests struggle to answer questions they are unqualified to answer. The laughs in this film come between long passages of observation centering on character behavior. There’s an unforgettable moment early on when a man dressed as Santa Claus uses firecrackers to get revenge on some young troublemakers. The scene plays out in an extreme long shot, highlighting the exquisite comic timing of the onscreen action.
It may require considerable patience to reap the full rewards of these films, but they are more than worth the effort. Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective has the same deadpan humor and scathing social commentary offered in his previous feature. The protagonist is a fresh-faced police officer, Cristi (Dragos Bucur), who’s ordered to secretly follow a schoolboy suspected of smoking hash and offering it to friends. Cristi believes the law that calls for the boy’s arrest will soon be changed, and feels no need to ruin the boy’s life simply for the charge of smoking. Much of the film is wordless, as Cristi goes about his dreary task while seeking the drug’s source, in order to save the boy from spending seven years behind bars. When the dialogue does come, the film settles into a theatrical mode reminiscent of the mesmerizing prolonged conversation in Steve McQueen’s Hunger earlier this year. All the while, the camera simply observes the action in shots that give viewers the freedom to reflect on the thematic and moral complexities contained within the frame.
There are two great scenes in Police, Adjective that rank alongside the most well-written and acted moments in cinema this year. The first centers on a playful argument Cristi has with his wife about a love song she incessantly plays with lyrics like, “What would the sea be without the sun?” Cristi, drunk and bored after a long day of following, says that the song doesn’t make any sense since the sea would still be the sea without the sun. His wife points out that the lyrics are meant to create images representing symbols of love as an absolute. “Why can’t it just be said directly?” Cristi complains, echoing the direct, stripped-down style of Romanian cinema itself, which offers a refreshing alternative to the blatant visual symbolism rampant in so many other films.
The other great scene mirrors the first in many ways. It’s the climactic meeting between Cristi and his angry police captain, which articulates the film’s messages with such clarity and grace (not to mention wit), that it is best left to speak for itself. I will say, however, that the film does a spectacular job of showing how the very words of Romanian citizens are controlled, both by grammatical rulings from the Romanian Academy and the legal linguistics used by police. The captain believes that morality is relative while the law is absolute, overlooking the fact that the law can be altered every bit as much as one’s moral conscience. Porumbiou’s screenplay masterfully tweaks the ability of law officials to control language, thus asserting their personal power over what is essentially interpretive tools for communication. Among its many achievements, Police, Adjective brings new meaning to the phrase “word police.”
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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