Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective is really two movies, varying significantly in their degree of success. For the first two-thirds of its running time, the film is a deadpan procedural with a moral undertone, sticking with a Bucharest cop through the generally monotonous process of staking out a perp. In the second and worse of the two strands, Police, Adjective becomes a semantic discussion, hashing out the implications of linguistic definition. This second, headier film makes various intrusions amid the first—usually played for comic effect—before taking over for the film’s long climax, which amps up the moral seriousness and sinks Porumboiu’s work into the realm of tedious academic exercise.
Assigned to follow a young kid who has been observed smoking hashish, everyman police officer Cristi (Dragos Bucur, looking nothing like a cop in his turtleneck and jeans) spends his days following the boy from a safe distance when he’s not staking out the house of the kid’s friend in hopes of discovering the source of the drug. Although Cristi has no desire to arrest the boy for simply smoking the hash (a law he disagrees with and that he believes will soon change), his superiors allow for no such flexibility and it becomes clear that if the boy is unwilling to give up his source, he will have to do up to seven years of hard time.
For long stretches, the film is completely wordless (a state of affairs that renders the concluding talkathon such a shock), the camera simply watching Cristi go about his business. These extended observational periods both align the viewer’s perspective with the character’s (by making palpable the sense of duration involved in routine police investigations) and diverge from that perspective. This divergence is most felt in scenes in which, calling on a deadpan display of humor, Porumboiu sets up little bits of business in the background of his shot—a woman calling to a recalcitrant dog, a piece of graffiti spelling out the name of WWE wrester-turned-actor John Cena—while Cristi stares obliviously on. This sense of disconnect between character and surroundings carries over into his home life (despite being newly married, he almost always dines alone) and his job, the alienating bureaucracy of which is expertly rendered in a scene where the cop sits silently in a waiting room while an indifferent secretary bangs away at a typewriter, and renders his alienation as something like an existential state.
Still, even as much of the film revolves around silent observation, Porumboiu repeatedly intercuts moments of dialogue, almost always concerned with questions of semantics, into the picture’s wordless bulk. In a humorous pair of scenes, Cristi engages his schoolteacher wife in two rounds of linguistic discussion, parsing the banal lyrics of a pop song—which he interprets from a literalist perspective, while she’s more open to its symbolic possibilities—or discussing the latest grammatical rulings of the Romanian Academy. These discussions are played for harmless laughter, but they find a far more serious counterpart in the world of police and legal linguistics that increasingly take over the film’s concerns, in which the shifty definitions of words such as “supplier” determine the cops’ ability to pin charges of various degrees of gravity on their suspects.
The film’s interest in the official functioning of language comes to a head in a long final segment (like the much longer TV shoot in Porumboiu’s earlier 12:08 East of Bucharest, the single scene tends to dominate the film), when Cristi and a fellow cop are called into the office of their angry captain. The viewer’s reaction to this centerpiece scene, in which the captain forces Cristi to actually look up the words “conscience,” “law,” “moral,” and “police” in a dictionary, will likely dictate his response to the film, and for my money, it’s a near complete failure, a misstep so severe that it nearly undoes much of the work of the rest of the picture. By actually resorting to the device of a dictionary, Porumboiu states his case far too bluntly, spelling out his themes as artificial talking points and turning the final discussion from a dramatically viable exchange to a round of abstract dialectics.
The exchange may yield some tentative insights about how the ability to control the essentially slippery medium of language—the police captain, like the Romanian Academy, insists on enforcing his specific linguistic readings over other, perhaps equally viable, possibilities—allows an individual to assert his personal power, but the director squanders these insights by manipulating Cristi’s moral crisis to fit neatly into the schema he’s just proposed and relieving his character of any independent will. So while Police, Adjective‘s procedural segments feature some of Porumboiu’s best filmmaking, allowing their observations to emerge organically from the director’s precisely rendered setups, the final sequence represents the director’s nadir, as he crafts what feels like an overblown thesis statement and welds it uncomfortably to what would otherwise have been an impressive little piece of work.