By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 30, 2010)
“What do you think; would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”
Most people would agree that Bullitt and The French Connection qualify as seminal examples of the modern “cop thriller”. While both are primarily revered for their iconic action sequences, what makes them most fascinating to me is the attention to character minutia.
In Bullitt, it’s a scene where Steve McQueen’s character slouches home after a shift. He walks into a corner grocery and perfunctorily scoops up an armload of TV dinners, then retires to his modest apartment to decompress. It’s a leisurely sequence that may seem superfluous, but speaks volumes about the character.
A similar scene in The French Connection has detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) shivering outside in the cold for hours, wolfing fast food and drinking bad coffee out of a Styrofoam cup as he stakes out his quarry, an international drug kingpin who is enjoying a gourmet meal in an upscale restaurant. Both films demonstrate how non-glamorous and mundane police work actually is, an aspect most genre entries tend to gloss over.
“Non-glamorous and mundane” could be a good descriptive for Police, Adjective, the latest film from Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu. In fact, this is the type of film that requires any viewer weaned on typical Hollywood grist to first unlearn what they have previously learned about crime dramas.
There are no foot chases, car chases, shootouts, take downs or perp walks. There are no fast cuts or pulse-pounding musical cues. In short, the viewer is forced to pay attention, to observe and study…to “stake out” the characters and events, if you will. The devil is in the details (like real detective work.) And your reward? Well, you may not solve a major crime, but you could reach a certain state of enlightenment via a 15-minute denouement involving a Dostoevskian discourse on the dialectics of law, morality and conscience (Nothing blows up?!).
We observe a plainclothes cop named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) as he keeps tabs a teenage suspect who may or may not be a low-level pot dealer…pretty much in real time for the first half of the film.
As if we haven’t received an adequate taste of Cristi’s job-related tedium, Porumboiu appends each sequence with a static, several-minute long close-up of the officer’s handwritten report, annotating every detail of what we have just seen. It’s almost as if we’re reading the shooting script; I wonder if the director is conveying an allusion to the relative tedium of the film making process itself (clever-clever!).
Based on my description so far, you may be saying to yourself “This movie sounds like a waste of time.” Funny thing is, that is exactly what Cristi is thinking about his stakeout. He is becoming increasingly chagrined that his boss (Vlad Ivonov) insists that he keeps digging until he finds cause to set up a sting, because he intuits that it’s merely a case of kids just “being kids”…hanging out and getting high together, as opposed to a major drug operation.
Besides, Cristi feels in his heart of hearts that his country is on the verge of joining other European nations in lightening up the penalties for personal pot use (yes-the innate stupidity of most pot laws appears to be universal, and requires no translation).
Cristi’s boss, however, sees this subjective attitude toward his assignment as an opportunity to teach the young officer an object lesson about the meaning of “duty”; literally starting with the etymology of the word “police” (hence the film’s unusual title).
I know that sounds as dull as dish water, and it’s difficult to convey what makes this film work so well. It may sound like the makings of a sober, introspective drama, but there is actually a great deal of wry comedy throughout. One scene in particular, in which Cristi and his school teacher wife (Irina Saulescu) spiritedly banter about the literal vs. metaphorical context of a pop song’s lyrics is a gem.
The film is also a fascinating glimpse at a post-E.U. Romania, and the unenviable task of redefining “policing” in a formerly oppressive police state still gingerly feeling its way as a democracy. Besides-when is the last time you saw a cop thriller wherein the most formidable weapon brandished was…a Romanian dictionary?