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Movie Review

Police, Adjective

The definition of riveting: Romanian police drama finds its thrill in words, not high-speed chases

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 22, 2010

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Certain movies provoke critics to plead with an audience to be patient. It’s a pitiful but sometimes necessary last resort. “Police, Adjective,’’ from Romania, is a case in point. This startling, shrewd film rewards your loyalty with its wry intelligence. The usual emphasis in a detective film is upended so that procedure, thrillingly, is more important than action. In its own way, this is one of the most intense cop movies you’ll see.

A Bucharest detective named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is trying to close out a simple drug case involving a teenage boy and the boy’s connection to a dealer. In seemingly minute-by-minute detail, we watch Cristi walk the damp streets on cold, gloomy days, trailing the young man through a parking lot and to school. Cristi lurks outside the convenience store across from the boy’s family’s home and picks up discarded cigarette butts and inspects them for traces of hash. That’s familiar procedural stuff, rendered here in painstakingly observational fashion. We are there.

What happens between Cristi’s one-man stakeouts is more striking. It, too, is mundane. But you gradually see a character develop. Early, at his office, Cristi tells a tubby co-worker he doesn’t want to play foot tennis with him. The rejection is purely deductive. Since the co-worker is bad at soccer he must be bad at foot tennis. All the two sports share is the kicking of a ball, but never mind. The co-worker is perplexed: “It is written down somewhere?’’ “No,’’ Cristi says, dismissively, “but it is a law.’’

The writer and director Corneliu Porumboiu approaches moviemaking with the rising structure of some superbly told stories. He has a gift for foreshadowing. That conversation between Cristi and his co-worker provides an insight into Cristi. This young plain-looking man is a model of snobby certitude and literal-mindedness. In most instances, he’s probably right. But he’s also imprecise. And that intellectual imprecision leaves him open to incrimination when it comes to this drug case. His bosses want to end Cristi’s investigation and just stage a bust. He objects. The kid he’s been following will go to jail for drug possession. And that, in Cristi’s words, would be stupid.

Nowhere else in Europe can you be arrested for smoking pot, he insists. But this, the movie argues, is not Europe. It’s Romania. And the crop of keen young filmmakers that emerged at the end of the last decade has seen fit to reconfigure their homeland as a Twilight Zone. In “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,’’ “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,’’ and Porumboiu’s own incisive critique of nostalgia, “12:08 East of Bucharest,’’ these directors assess the country’s grimly comic (or grimly grim) institutional dysfunction and show how that dysfunction has come, in some way, to shape the national character. With a rare balance of feeling and irony, their movies suggest that psychically Romania remains under the thumb of the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. On a second viewing, the exchanges in “Police, Adjective’’ become freighted with meaning. Although by the time Cristi heads to his apartment for dinner with his wife, Anca (Irina Saulescu), the stubborn nature of his personality is apparent enough to suspect it will eventually bring him grief. Over and over, his wife plays a video of a popular ballad by the Romanian singer Mirabela Dauer. Exasperated, Cristi mocks the song’s sentimentality. Life goes on, sings Dauer. “Can it go backward?’’ he asks Anca, slightly amused with himself. She explains the images are symbols. Then, “why not say it directly?’’ he says.

A policier that turns into a comedy about figures of speech and the letter of the law counts as an act of subversion. The subject is not crime. It’s communication. A usage error arouses more suspense than the drug case. At various intervals, the camera scrolls down Cristi’s reports as if they were dictionary entries. The attention to grammatical and figurative detail around the police precinct completely alters the very meaning of “procedural.’’ The movie culminates in a conversation that hinges on pages being flipped in an actual dictionary. It’s just three men sitting around a book. And yet rarely has such high drama been leveraged against such a humdrum scenario.

In this witheringly funny encounter, Porumboiu manages to find another incarcerating facet of the Romanian character, hinged simply on how Cristi is able to define his job. How can he be permitted to operate outside the dictates of his superiors when he can’t clearly express why bending the law is morally wrong. We’re forced to question the value of the job we’ve been watching Cristi perform: Is this thorough police work or a waste of money and time?

Here the difference between instinct and self-articulation is vast and yet not as fixed as it would seem. As Cristi looks up words (“conscience,’’ say) at the command of his imperiously cruel boss (Vlad Ivanov, the abortion doctor from “4 Months’’), meaning suddenly seems arbitrary. Anyone who’s ever been forced to define a word under duress will spend the final 15 minutes in spine-tingling empathy with Cristi. The dictionary is booby-trapped so that its contents can be used to oppress and humiliate. The language police here operate their own dictatorship.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE Written and directed by: Corneliu Porumboiu

Starring: Dragos Bucur, Irina Saulescu, and Vlad Ivanov

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 113 minutes

Unrated

In Romanian, with subtitles

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