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Watching the Detective

February 12, 2010
Police, Adjective

Dragos Bucur is a young detective put on a trivial case in Police, Adjective.

The films of the Romanian New Wave may be a great advertisement for the creative talents of Romanian filmmakers, but they’re terrible marketing for the country. In films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Bucharest is portrayed as a city of decaying concrete apartment buildings, rain-slicked streets and perpetually overcast skies. The only thing more depressing than the setting is the people. Police, Adjective, the new film by Corneliu Poromboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), is no exception.

Recalling the spare aesthetic of Cristian Mungu’s 4 Months, Police, Adjective follows Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young detective, as he pursues a case against a teenager suspected of dealing drugs. Despite the serious jailtime associated with the offense, “case” is perhaps too strong a word for Cristi’s pursuits. The only evidence he has is the accusations of the boy’s best friend and observations of the boy sharing a joint with his girlfriend and the informant. But such is the nature of bureaucratic inertia that once the case is opened, it needs to be closed with an arrest. Quietly—and I do mean quietly—the film tracks Cristi’s attempts to resist his boss’s demands for a quick arrest.

Despite its subject matter, the film is worlds apart from traditional detective fiction. Cristi is neither an intellect nor a man of action. His head is fixed in a constant droop, and his face never breaks a smile, as if his job has become a genuine physical burden. The film gives no indication whether he carries a gun, or even a badge. There is little action and no great conspiracy. This is a detective story without a mystery or even, it seems, a crime. As Cristi tells a prosecutor, the boy’s offense is not illegal in most of Europe, and seems likely to be decriminalized in Romania soon. In this detective story, the moral force rests with the “criminal,” not the police.

The emptiness of the law’s pursuit of the boy is emphasized by the film’s storytelling style, characterized by long silences and longer takes. The first four minutes of the film pass without a word of dialogue, as Cristi tails the boy in real time. This routine is repeated, in slightly condensed form, several times throughout the film. In one effectively excruciating scene, the camera rests statically, stoically, on Cristi as he sits in an anteroom waiting for his boss to finish reading his report. From Cristi’s unmoved face we get the sense that Romanians are used to waiting for things.

Even Cristi’s domestic life, the only source of warmth in this chilly film, is hardly lively. Cristi and his wife (Irina Saulescu) are newlyweds, but most of their screentime is dialogue-free. When they do speak, they engage in debates over grammar and the meaning of lyrics to an overwrought Romanian pop song. Who decides that an indefinite article no longer needs to have a gender, Cristi asks his wife. The Romanian Academy, she says. Unlike in the U.S., the Academy is not a catch-all term for the disorganized intelligentsia—it’s an actual state-financed institution directed to cultivate the nation’s language and literature, among other purposes. In Poromboiu’s vision of Romania, even conversation has been highjacked by the numbing hand of bureaucracy.

Indeed, throughout the film, the precisions of grammar and semantics serve as a comic analogy for the technicalities of bureaucracy. In the climactic meeting between Cristi, his boss (Vlad Ivanov, terrific, and only slightly less threatening than he was as the abortionist in 4 Months) and Cristi’s partner Nelu (Ion Stoica), the boss asks Nelu, “Do you know what we’re doing here?” “Having a meeting?” Nelu asks. “No,” says the boss, a born bureaucrat and parser of syntax. “Dialectics.”

As grammar and semantics are to common usage, so bureaucracy is to common sense. While putting a boy in jail for years for sharing a joint may violate common sense ethics, bureaucracy thrives on following the letter of the law, regardless of its obsolescence or absurdity. Even 20 years after the fall of Communism and Nicolae Ceauşescu, bureaucracy still serves to alienate Romanian society from the moral claims of the state.

While Poromboiu effectively gets his social realist point across, my only wish is that his filmmaking could have been more efficient. Numerous scenes drag on with no apparent purpose other than to evoke a sense of the banal passing of time. Cristi’s silent tailing of the boy and his friends not only evokes a sense of monotony, it is monotonous. But then again, if your subject matter is bureaucracy, efficiency is hardly the point, is it?

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