Thursday, February 11, 2010

Crime may not matter in this police yarn

Dragos Bucur plays a waiting game in Police, Adjective.

The Romanian import Police, Adjective begins with a man following a teen-ager who seems to be on his way to school. We don't know anything about the man or the kid he's tailing. Eventually, we learn that the man -- clad in jeans and a rumpled jacket -- is a detective and that he's following a young man suspected of drug use, namely hashish.

We also learn that we're in a small Romanian city that seems to be totally lacking in lively urban pleasures. The atmosphere is one of overcast skies and economic depravation.

Director Corneliu Porumboiu constructs an entire movie around a police investigation into the smoking of a couple of joints, a preposterous endeavor in any culture. But Porumboiu, who works at a maddeningly slow pace and who tramples normal cop-movie conventions, obviously has something besides crime and punishment in mind.

Precisely what he has in mind remains another matter, and invites a slew of interpretation on the part of those with sufficient patience to sit through Police, Adjective, a movie that found its way onto some year-end best lists and which has garnered general critical favor.

Scenes leading to the movie's finale -- which take place in a police inspector's office and involve extensive and improbable use of a dictionary -- provide clues about what Porumboiu is up to with this strange, frustrating and sometimes amusing movie.

Cristi (Dragos Bucur) -- the detective from the movie's opening scene -- confronts a variety of obstacles, some stemming from the pettiness that flourishes inside deeply entrenched bureaucracies. At one point, Cristi argues with a busy clerk about how quickly a report can be prepared. Behind the clerk's recalcitrance, a refusal to accept the idea that Cristi has any authority over him.

An atmosphere of rife futility prevails: When Cristi's encounter with a young snitch comes to end because the kid has to finish his homework, we realize that Police, Adjective bears about as much resemblance to hard-boiled crime drama as miniature golf does to smash-mouth football.

For all of this, Cristi's motivations remain clear. He doesn't want to ruin a young man's life because of one or two joints. On their recent honeymoon, Cristi and his wife visited Prague. Cristi noticed that young people in Prague tended to smoke joints openly. No big deal. Surely, Romania soon will catch up with the rest of Europe and stop fretting about small-time use of innocuous drugs -- or so Cristi thinks. Cristi's conscience becomes a focal point in the story.

In addition to investigating the case, which involves lots of tedious surveillance, Cristi also spends a lot of time avoiding his boss (Vlad Ivanov). Cristi knows that the chief inspector will insist that he set up an elaborate sting operation and make arrests.

Cristi's meeting with Ivanonv's character constitutes the movie's peculiar finale, a deadpan piece of absurdist comedy. It's as if we've been immersed in a universe in which every transaction hinges on discussions that resemble President Clinton's parsing of the word “is.” Language becomes a tool of manipulation and a cause for subtle confusion. The dictionary stands as a weapon to be wielded against the relevance of personal experience.

Police, Adjective isn't likely to appear in any dictionary under the word "entertainment." Porumboiu likes to employ extended shots in which little happens. When Cristi returns home for lunch, we spend what seems an eternity watching him eat a bowl of soup. Conversations are not broken into over-the-shoulder close-ups, but are presented without benefit of editing. Both participants appear in a single shot. Sometimes, we don't even hear what's being said in a conversation. Like Cristi, we observe from a distance, watching intently but discovering little.

To be honest, there were only so many times I could watch Cristi walk down a corridor in police headquarters without wanting to scream. Porumboiu sometimes makes us wonder whether we're seeing the same scene again and again. These atmospheric helpings of deja vu put us into the same frustrating situation as Cristi, but they also turn the movie into a bit of an endurance test.

In its way, though, Police, Adjective begins to work on your head. Here's a police movie without guns, car chases or tough talk, a film that demands to be understood for what it isn't as much as for what it is.

Toward the end of the movie, Cristi and three fellow cops engage in a game of foot tennis. (No, I never had heard of it, either.) The game is played with a net and a soccer ball, and to my eyes, there seemed to something crazy about it, mayhem within a narrowly defined field of play.

But, then, we all accept a lot of craziness in our daily lives. If nothing else, Police, Adjective provides us with ample proof that sanity is usually in rare supply. Viewed this way, Police, Adjective becomes one of cinema's more rueful jokes, a police movie that doesn't really care about crime.

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