When we think of cops in movies we tend to visualize men of action, ready to kick down a door to make an arrest or pull out their giant gun to cajole a confession out of the guilty party. Harry Callahan, Popeye Doyle and Martin Riggs are our role models. Iconic characters such as these have laid the blueprints for the classic cop archetype that pops up again and again. Sadly, it's just not real.
It's no better on television. The endless array of indistinguishable shows with initials in their titles about cops in cities such as Miami, Las Vegas or Los Angeles portray law men and women as forensic ninjas, who can fight the bad guys just as easily as they can run scientific tests on evidence left behind by shortsighted villains. Can anyone tell the difference between these increasingly silly shows? I know I can't.
These sort of cops make for thrilling cinema and ratings-grabbing television shows, but the unglamorous reality of police work rarely involves shootouts, car chases, made up science or the overt bravado that has become the staple for the portrayal of police in film and television.
Police, Adjective, a Romanian film from director Corneliu Porumboiu dispenses with all that nonsense and delivers a refreshingly authentic, glacially slow and extraordinary police procedural that focuses on the mundane realities of what it is like to be a cop in this particular place in the world.
Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is a young cop with a tiny, cramped, poorly lit office who is following a suspect who openly smokes hashish with two friends on the street. This is against the law in Romania, and Cristi's superior wants him to arrest the trio in a sting. Cristi doesn't want to do that as he'd prefer to go after actual dealers rather than sending this kid to prison for four years. Cristi begins to question the semantics of Romanian law as he's drawn closer to the date to commit to the arrest.
Police, Adjective has lots of scenes of Cristi following his suspect through the streets or standing around waiting for him to come out of his house. These scenes go on for minutes and then repeat. In this world, being a cop means a lot of waiting, watching and reporting. Police work is mundane and full of drudgery. It shouldn't be interesting to watch, but it is.
The film has a deliberate slowness, an authenticity of place that is impossible to fake. It's as if Porumboiu has set up a few cameras on a tripod, left them running and captured this footage with various characters unaware they are being filmed. It's riveting.
Police, Adjective is a simple tale and Porumboiu tells it in a direct, to the point, honest minimalist style. Had he chosen any other strategy, the film would have suffered. From the first to the last frame, there is absolutely no artifice.
None. There's no music. The soundtrack of the film is the city itself. There are long takes that go on for minutes from a stationary camera that draw the audience into Cristi's world. There are huge patches of the film with absolutely no dialogue (the first word in the movie isn't spoken until around the seven-minute mark). Does this sound like your standard police film in this day and age? Well, it's not and thank goodness for that.
An interesting underlying concept in the film is how one person reacts to all the numbing routines of an individual's existence.
Police, Adjective is an existential film lurking in the shadows of a police setting as everything in the film revolves around Cristi's contemplation of his world: the banal conversations at home with his pop music loving new wife, waiting out the Romanian police bureaucracy with stern patience, debating superiors regarding the machinations of Romanian law versus moral law and the hours lost in thought as he waits for his suspect to do something, anything. Each day we see Cristi, the hours are the same, dull and monotonous with unwavering ruthlessness. Isn't that how life is for many of us each day?
I have a soft spot for movies set in this part of the world. Most films from countries that used to belong to the Soviet Union have this knife-edge clarity of grim hopelessness to them that hits me right in my heart. The more bleak, the better.
Watching people wander around empty, desolate Romanian streets with nothing happening? Yes, please. The grimy, dilapidated, concrete complexes of Soviet architecture with buildings that resemble above ground bunkers? Charmless, brutal and beautiful!
Police, Adjective fed my fix for that kind of thing, but it's much more than depressing Soviet, Eastern European fetishism. Corneliu Porumboiu has made a brilliantly contained movie that pulls you into this man's world so completely that it seems as if you are in the room with him, standing on the street with him and watching him think about the life he's living.
Police, Adjective is the perfect sort of police procedural, thriller in spite of its lack of chases and showdowns. Police, Adjective isn't what you'd call "action-packed," but it's an incredible film. Give me the slow, mundane and authentic every time.
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