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You Can't Win: ‘Police, Adjective’ Refuses To Go By The Book

Violent gunfights, visceral takedowns, high-drama interrogations and even angrily tossed metal chairs -- all are absent from Police, Adjective.

Yet this determinedly downtempo, absurdly mundane and undeniably smart (and subtly black-humored) film is another example of the rebirth of cinema in Romania -- Cristian Mungiu’s award-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was only one low-budget example of the bracing and critical intelligence of the country’s filmmakers. Call this an anti-Heat, an anti-Departed, a police procedural suspicious of its own process.

Director Corneliu Porumboiu trains his camera on the mostly colorless, cement-hued world of detective Cristi (Dragos Bucur) and a series of absurdly plodding stake-outs. He methodically follows first one teenager, then a squealer and finally a friend of both, carefully gathering his evidence -- namely their tossed joints -- and coaxing his kindred institutional drudges in criminal records, passports and the like to give up info in order to build his case. The case that would tax the patience of a saint (if not Christ, an obvious allusion to its protagonist’s moniker): a ridiculous “sting” on a hash-smoking teen who’s clearly neither a dealer nor a threat to society.

We watch Cristi think while eating his lunch, bicker with co-workers, and survey the teenagers and their families from afar, and filmmaker Porumboiu studies his lead actor just as closely, following the bare traces of action (if that’s what you want to call it; the sparse events of Police, Adjective are so minimal, slow-moving, and oblique they make inert monuments like Mt. Rushmore look like interactive sculpture).

One joke Porumboiu can’t resist is that the characters only come alive when they argue about semantics: Cristi tangles with his wife Anca (Irina Saulescu) over the lyrics of an over-the-top love song she listens to on YouTube (“It’s an image and a symbol,” she counters his dismissal of the lyric “What’s the field without the flower”) then engages in a dialectic on the meaning of “moral law” with his captain (Vlad Ivanov, who played the abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Here, both the literal and figurative seem to tag-team in conspiring against Cristi. Language oppresses and harnesses the good cop with a conscience as much as procedure, bureaucracy, and the law. And while Porumboiu doesn’t exactly have fun conveying those points -- and grappling with ideas in the grey of governmental turgidity while taking shots at Romania’s slow-moving institutional targets -- he has made an intelligent entry into a cinematic conservation on rigorous realism begun by Robert Bresson and Chantal Ackerman. 

Police, Adjective is at Lumiere, 1572 California St., SF, and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College Ave., Berkeley. www.landmarktheatres.com, www.rialtocinemas.com