Police, Adjective, the latest film by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu (East of Bucharest), is ostensibly so boring it is almost comical. Here is a movie where the vast majority of its action comprises of either a young, sullen police detective walking through dreary streets watching teenage boys smoke hashish, or the audience watching that police detective eat soup and pickles and drink beer. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Police, Adjective has to be the first movie in cinema history whose dramatic climax consists of three men sitting around reading a dictionary. This is not an exaggeration: the last fifteen minutes of this movie consist of policemen reading definitions out of a dictionary. That these elements somehow come together to make a compelling, thoughtful film that burrows into your mind and refuses to leave is an accomplishment in itself.
What makes Police, Adjective such a refreshing film is the simple clarity of Porumboiu’s ambitions. The film is tightly focused on a single choice. Cristi (Dragos Bucur), the young police detective, is trailing a middle class teenage boy whose friend has told the police that he is a drug dealer. Cristi finds that the boy isn’t dealing drugs, but because Cristi has documented the boy smoking hash and giving it to his friends, the young man could be imprisoned for up to three years. Cristi doesn’t believe this is fair, especially since the rest of Europe is much more tolerant towards this kind of low-level drug use than Romania. “I don’t want to ruin the kid’s life for a law that is going to change,” Cristi tells the case’s prosecutor (Marian Ghenea). “You are not qualified to have an opinion about the law,” the prosecutor replies.
This is the essential tension of the film – the relationship between Cristi’s personal morality and a legalistic understanding of right and wrong. It is not until the penultimate scene, when Cristi’s captain forces him to read the definition of “police” from the dictionary, that we realize the meaning of the film’s title. “Police” is an adjective, a descriptive word that modifies the noun “man.” Cristi’s internal conflict is that his conscience tells him arresting the young man isn’t right, but because he is a policeman, his conscience doesn’t matter – he has a duty to uphold the law. This descriptive “police” somehow changes an aspect of Cristi’s being-as-man.
Though he barely speaks throughout the film, Cristi emerges as a complex character. He gets into two legalistic spats with his wife and a fellow detective about seemingly mundane topics – the meaning of sappy pop song and why a bad soccer player wouldn’t be any good at foot tennis – but the scenes give you a sense of how Cristi’s mind works. These overlooked scenes also allow a more complex, almost unperceivable drama to sprout-up behind the main action. Police, Adjective becomes a story about a marriage on the rocks, a personal crisis, and a satire of legalistic society, Bucur’s face dripping with the sullenness of the former soviet block.
As a director, Porumboiu has the patience of a Yasujiro Ozu. He allows the film’s action to get so close to the pace of real life that watching it becomes almost tedious. When Cristi is told to wait outside his captain’s office for five minutes, the camera stays fixed on Cristi sitting in a chair for almost five minutes. This kind of scene is repeated throughout, and the camera’s obsessive fixation on its quiet, slouching main character slowly breaks down our status as cinematic voyeurs. We seem to stop watching Cristi and, instead, experience his life. By the end we feel as if we are walking, smoking, and chewing our way through this movie. That’s because Porumboiu wants us to be with Cristi making this moral choice, and he wants us to understand that these profound moral conflicts do not only arise in grand dramas, but in the overlooked instances of the everyday.