Police officer Cristi (Dragos Bucur) has the school playground under surveillance. Although drug use is evident, he is hesitant about making an arrest. With Romania the only European country in which marijuana use and distribution is still a punishable offense, he feels he would be pointlessly ruining a kid’s life by sending him to prison for 3 ½ years for violating a law that is likely to be repealed. He wants to wait a few weeks and trap the older brother, who he suspects of serious drug dealing. The chief doesn’t see it that way. In his view, Cristi has succumbed to the chaos of subjective morality and gives him the ultimatum of either enforcing the law and being a police officer or following his own moral code and leaving the force. In “Police, Adjective,” writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) uses a dictionary to define who and what we are when our only means of self-knowledge is the subjection of our variable moral codes to the objective definitions of words.
The length of the average shot in today’s movies is between two and four seconds. In “Police, Adjective,” it is one minute and twelve seconds. So slow down your heart rate before entering the theater, because this is an emphatically slow-paced movie. In addition, few of the scenes in the first hour have any dialog. Mostly the camera follows Cristi around as he runs surveillance on the suspected drug dealer. When Christi leaves the frame, the camera either follows another character who has entered it or cuts to the next shot. Sometimes it seems Christi has left the frame, when in fact he is just lurking behind some camouflage, and the camera waits for his emergence into open space. There is much fun and fascination in yielding to the camera as it draws us into the daily mechanics of the police officer’s exacting and often dull surveillance methods.
Excepting some exchanges of dialog at the police station, the first conversation that is connected to the emergent theme takes place when Cristi breaks from his surveillance work to go home for lunch, where his girlfriend is enjoying repeated listening of a song by Mirabela Dauer, the lyrics of which annoy Cristi with what he considers their poetic absurdities. After eating alone in the kitchen, he confronts his girlfriend with his dislike of the song. She tries to explain the meaning of the lyrics, which he rejects with a vulgar parallel. This scenes sets up Cristi’s engagement of dialectics with the chief that occupies the film’s final twenty minutes, the first ten of which are dispatched in one astonishing shot.
If this all seems academic and dull, it is not. Porumboiu’s camera is both straight-faced gagmaster and laughing tease. One scene has Cristi walking cautiously toward a house. As he approaches, a man walks into the frame. The men near each other in a way that suggests an eminent confrontation. Instead, they silently pass, without even an acknowledgment. The absence of an event after such a long period of monotony comes as a hysterical sight gag. There are also some hilarious bits of dialog between Cristi and his pre-occupied co-workers, with whom he has to beg, plead, and negotiate in order to get them to do their jobs. The stretches of real-time boredom are filled with the minutia of real-time living, all of which makes those moments when life whips into active form the more memorable.