I can forgive Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective for its didacticism because it feels well-earned. Beginning as the Romanian answer to 24—a police procedural presented in “real-time,” for the most part through long takes and even longer scenes—Porumboiu’s film is very much an argument, but it’s not, as one character suggests, a dialectical one. That would require a sustained, coherent position to counter the film’s prevailing utilitarian statement, which is revealed in a protracted climax involving a sneering superior and a Romanian dictionary. (Resolved: When a judgment of one’s own conscience comes into conflict with a judgment that maintains the status quo, the status quo wins.) It sounds as much fun as being hit continuously upside the head for 115 minutes by a rolled-up newspaper and then, to help you understand what it’s all for, being whacked in the face several times by a rock-hard icepack.
The dual-nature of that blunt trauma is, however, a blessing in disguise. First, the director effectively numbs you into a trance. It’s hard not to struggle while Porumboiu hypnotizes you with long take after long take, but he does it very effectively thanks to some tantalizing bait. We follow Cristi (Dragos Bucur), blue collar and flatfoot supreme, throughout his daily routine—trailing a bunch of kids believed to sell and consume some small amount of pot. Though it’s unbelievable to think that an officer could only be responsible for one case at a time, Cristi devotes all his time on duty to trailing these kids, staking out where they’ll go next, getting more information about their surroundings and preparing paperwork, of course.
The unnaturally elongated pace of these scenes don’t force but rather allow your mind to wander, to explore the frame, only to discover that your lazy eye is, in its own time, latching onto what Porumboiu wants you to look at. The dreary post-industrial neighborhood Cristi tramps through is filmed with Porumboiu’s instinctive, painterly skill: he consistently finds the best place to put his sedentary camera and cast a spell on you.
The lulls between Cristi’s fits of speech and his actions effectively elicit the moral haze in which his routine envelops him. He refuses to bust a couple of kids for smoking pot because of a law that he’s sure will change in a couple of years. But Cristi has to because the law is the law and he must abide by it since he’s the tangible extension of that law. If you can’t tell already, Porumboiu’s view of the world (where grunts have to make all the big decisions, whether they know it or not) is very much an intellectual one. Porumboiu thankfully does not condescend to Cristi, making it clear to us that his confusion is not due to his low social class, but rather his extensive involvement in the case.
That experiential proximity we share with Cristi, our guide to this particular corner of Romanian New Wave purgatory, is thus the extent of his certainty, a gut reaction which is effectively squelched in the film’s devastatingly deadpan finale. Like Cristi’s reports—which are shown to the viewer in close-up as if they were documents of unimpeachable truth—it hammers out any doubt from Cristi’s mind and ours with the grace of a bulldozer. The overt nature of the scene is a perfect example of why Porumboiu is the foremost miserablist of his New Wave colleagues. It lends Police, Adjective a complementary affinity to Kafka’s style of bullishly grinding his characters into the ground with the absurdity of the police states that his stories comment on. It’s a hard film to cozy up to, but one I look forward to rewatching.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 25—October 11.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.