A Romanian cop named Cristi gathers evidence on some poor kid for smoking a little hash. See Cristi follow the kid to school. See Cristi pick up a joint. See Cristi eat lunch. See Cristi pick up another joint. See Cristi follow the kid home. Hear Cristi report all this in writing (not the lunch). See Cristi eat dinner. See Cristi drink beer. Hear people lecture Cristi about the Letter of the Law. Hear Cristi reply, "Even without drinking, I still wouldn't understand it." Filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu seems to think a post-Soviet bureaucracy that wastes everyone's lives demands a movie that does the same. I understand this, but even with drinking, I wouldn't enjoy it.
Police, Adjective is one of those movies that came to the Portland International Film Festival already presold with hype and pretensions of social outrage. Like France's A Prophet, Great Britain's Fish Tank and South Korea's Mother, it reduces the corruption and persecution of young people to a dreary spectacle, although it distinguishes itself as so dreary that there is no actual spectacle. Unlike those other films, Police, Adjective is not a snuff show. Instead of exploiting the reliable duo of sex and violence, it appeals to intellectual ego, expecting us to get off on scenes of standing, walking, reading and symbolic conversation, because mere common sense deems them exasperating. It aims deliberately for the anti-cinematic.
The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, whose praise adorns the movie's poster, calls Police, Adjective "often hilariously mundane." But a comedy of the mundane relies on the characters' resistance to boredom, not the boredom itself. The policeman keeps his mouth shut and his head literally down, and to laugh at his plight you have to take an awfully superior attitude. For "hilariously mundane," give me Mike Judge's Office Space, with its desperate mutterings of rebellion: "But…well…OK, but—I could set the building on fire…." That movie didn't even need to fulfill the fantasy of setting the building on fire. Giving voice to it was delightful enough. Police, Adjective gives voice only to the humorless bureaucrats, and if we find their echo chamber funny, we must have accepted their terms.
Why are critics so crazy about Police, Adjective? One could blame their own echo chamber. (When I watched the film, I heard titters of appreciation for the opening credit to "HBO Romania," a funnier phrase than "police, adjective," and a last signpost of middle-class taste before the endurance test.) Yet it's also possible this movie's style and subject are uniquely flattering to the mind of the writer.
Basically, there are scenes where nothing happens, and scenes where you read subtitles. After endless shots in "real time" of the policeman observing the kid's daily routine, we understand the pettiness of the drug violation. But then director Porumboiu makes us read the policeman's report, panning down his handwriting as he reads aloud. The words make the judgment, like in a film review! And our hero's ignorance of this linguistic power is what corrupts his essential decency. Really. Periodically, a dialogue scene spells this out in total deadpan, until the policeman bows down before the state authority of…the dictionary. And the filmmaker bows down too, with his officious movie that never gives a chance to personal responsibility or feeling.
Even the movie's title is a clever joke for those who privilege words over cinema. Within the film, we are given the dictionary definition of the word "police." Romanians apparently use it as an adjective to describe "a novel or film involving criminal happenings resolved through the ingenuity of a police officer." So Police, Adjective itself is a "police" film only by dictionary definition, and we are invited to appreciate the irony of a "cop movie" involving barely criminal happenings, unnecessarily prosecuted through the conformity of a police officer. Hilarious! It's a joke for people who need to be told when a film is departing from genre formula, because otherwise that formula is how they measure quality. The whole thing is a literal-minded rebuke to literal-mindedness. For what more could a man of letters ask? Well, he could ask for a good movie.
opens Friday, March 12, at the Hollywood Theatre.