Monday, February 22, 2010

Police, Adjective

Sometimes, while watching a film, I will find moments that seem to suck the heat from the room and leave the audience chilled to the bone. Let’s call them frost-bite moments—stinging scenes of cold control and brutal insight. Police, Adjective, a sharp new film from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, contains two such moments, although both are so unlikely that you probably won’t even notice the mercury dropping.

The first of these shuddering epiphanies comes, surprisingly, while the camera simply scans over a hand-written report, slowly passing over the words so that the audience can read the entire document. By all reasonable standards, this is the very opposite of drama.

Yet there is something startling in the stark clarity of the report, drawn up by a young police officer named Cristi (Dragos Bucur, a fine performance, the police officer as lackluster student, prepared for a scolding and refusing to cringe when it comes). The events described within make up the first portion of the film, where we watch Cristi watch three teenagers through a series of mundane moments, all filmed with an exacting patience. Quite frankly, these scenes are dull—so dull, in fact, that it’s shocking to realize this quiet day contains a crime that could net one of the teens a minimum of three and a half years in prison.

That crime is supplying pot (not selling, you’ll note, but simply passing around a joint). Even as Cristi performs his job dutifully, the prospect of sending a harmless teenager to prison for an outdated law that he feels will change in a few years bothers his conscience. That’s the shock of the report—mild actions reduced to their barest legalities. The blunt language of the police report turns the restrained naturalism of the opening scenes on its head, using our own detachment and disinterest against us. The words incriminate whereas the actions appear innocuous.

The second chill comes at the end of the film, during the incredible dictionary reading scene (yes, that’s right). When Cristi argues against convicting one of the teens—by offering up another possible target, and then finally flat-out refusing to take part in a sting operation—his captain brings in a dictionary and demands that the young man read aloud the definition for a variety of words, among them “conscience,” “law,” and “police.” (Amusingly, when Cristi begins to read the definition for “police state,” the captain cuts him off, dismissively explaining that every state is supported by the police, making the term meaningless—and infinitely more horrifying, I might add.)

What makes the scene so disturbing is seeing Cristi broken down by the smooth authoritarian manner of the police captain, played by the brilliant Vlad Ivanov (who seems well on his way to becoming the international face of the Romanian New Wave at this point, especially with showcase roles like this one). Similar to his performance as the abortionist who demands a harsh fee in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Ivanov portrays power at its most forceful and intractable. With that quiet, controlled voice of his, he gives the impression of someone who speaks softer the angrier he gets—definitely not someone you want to fuck with. He commands the scene from the start, and whereas he violated bodies in the earlier film, here he violates minds—calmly assuring the helpless police officer that he does not know his conscience, right and wrong, even his own self.

In an interview with CinemaScope magazine, Porumboiu says that he sees Romania as “a kind of a post-communist society without liberal values: it’s like you left a place and you don’t know where you’re going.” This lack of identity informs the film as much as its preoccupation with Orwellian manipulations of language, which is how the young officer’s moral quandaries are obliterated, leaving him a pliable tool of the police apparatus. If his conscience bothers him still, he has no way to express it anymore. Unable to define his language, Cristi is unable to define himself: you are what you speak.

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