Police, Adjective

Police, Adjective is one of the slowest paced films I’ve ever seen. Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is a nondescript police officer carrying out a surveillance operation. The target is a teenage boy who spends his days hanging out with two friends. One of those friends has told the police that the boy is selling marijuana.

It’s a nothing case. If the target is dealing it’s on a tiny scale. The informant’s motives are unclear and it’s far from certain the target is the one supplying the drugs. Cristi’s been following him a week as the movie opens and has nothing much to show for it.

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He’s avoiding his captain because he knows the captain will insist on a sting operation and a quick arrest regardless of the uncertainty as to whether the information received is actually any good.

The first half or so of the film follows the surveillance. Cristi loiters outside the target’s home. He follows him through the streets. Nothing much happens. Cristi watches the target and his two friends smoke together near a playground. Afterwards he tests the butt to check it is cannabis. It is, but only one joint.

Porumboiu uses long static shots for his scenes. Minutes of screen time are spent with Cristi standing on a corner, buying a coffee from a shop then standing on the corner some more. This is a film where, when a character ends a conversation on the phone, they take the time to say goodbye (except once, when it’s clear the other end just hung up).

Cristi’s job seems pointless. He has concerns about the case. He explains to the prosecutor that he was on holiday in Prague recently and that there the police wouldn’t touch a kid for smoking a joint. He thinks the law in Romania will be the same soon and he doesn’t want to send this kid to jail for a law that won’t even be in force for much longer. The prosecutor is more interested in how tourism could be brought to this bleak and uninteresting Romanian town by describing it differently. If Prague is called ‘Little Paris’ perhaps their town could attract tourism by calling itself ‘Little Prague’? For the prosecutor a change in language could lead to a change in reality. The reality of the case doesn’t interest him.

At home, Cristi’s wife (Irina Saulescu), a teacher, listens over and over to the same maudlin youtube track. When Cristi criticises the lyrics she breaks them down in detail for him analysing their grammar. She reads his reports and points out a spelling error – the Romanian Academy has made a declaration of correct usage two years previously and Cristi was unaware of it.

Language is at the heart of this film. Cristi is near silent most of the time. He observes and follows but has little to say. The prosecutor and Cristi’s wife both use words as part of their professions and for them proper nomenclature is critical.

All this builds to a bizarre and strangely tense scene in which Cristi and a colleague are called to see the captain. Again the pace is slow. The captain wants to read Cristi’s report and the film proceeds in real time while the report is sent into his office and the two wait for him to read it. The colleague makes small talk with the captain’s secretary. Cristi sits there uncomfortably. Eventually the buzzer rings and the two are sent in.

The captain (Vlad Ivanov, of Four Months, Three Weeks And Two Days) refuses to accept Cristi’s qualms of conscience. He sends for a dictionary and orders Cristi to read definitions from it – words such as conscience; law; moral; police. Ceaucescu’s regime ended in 1989. The prosecutor and police captain, were they real, would both have been active under that dictator. Here they use language to define reality and as an instrument of power. Cristi is not a talker and when his conscience speaks he lacks the assured eloquence of his superiors which he needs to give it an effective voice.

The acting in Police, Adjective is low-key but highly credible. The direction is slow and distant. The film examines the power of bureaucracy and language and how both can be used to silence the individual. It takes real risks and, in particular, it takes the risk of being incredibly boring (and many viewers will be bored by it). I had to force myself through some of the early scenes as my attention tried to wander, but it was worth it. There are moments of sly black comedy in the film (at one point Cristi writes in his report “nothing happened for three hours”) and moments of warmth and affection with Cristi’s wife. For all that though, at the heart of the film there is a moral crisis, and a meditation on language and totalitarianism. The rewards are there, but they require patience.

If watching a film in which nothing happens very slowly is your idea of hell then avoid this like the plague. If you do try it though, my strong advice would be to stick with it and adjust yourself to its pace. This isn’t a film which tries to please its audience. It has though its own quiet power and, personally, having seen this I’ll be seeking out the director’s previous film 12:08 East Of Bucharest.

I saw a preview version of Police, Adjective which came without extras.