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03/12/2010

A Romanian cop handcuffed, by definition

 
You've heard about entertainers so gifted that they could just read from the telephone book and entertain?

Well, in "Police, Adjective," an astonishingly daring offbeat drama from Romania, you might just be transfixed in your seat as the film's main character reads from a dictionary.  

If you appreciate quirky foreign films, don't be hasty to dismiss this drama (with slight hints of irony) as a classified bore.

Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu ("12:08 East of Bucharest") turns the deeply troubled cop genre on its ear with this little tale.  Here we have Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a rebel cop different than any rebel cop you've seen before.

Cristi isn't borderline psychotic like Mel Gibson in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise.  Nor is he an alcoholic (though he drinks at times), suicidal, a short timer or recently divorced.

This rebel with a cause simply doesn't want to arrest a local high school kid for smoking hash and sharing it with his friends.  Cristi is an undercover cop who's spent about a week trailing a local school kid whose experimentation with dope could, if he's not careful, send him to prison for about eight years.
 
Cristi's superiors sternly object to his notion that what the kid's doing may be against the letter of the law, but there's no real harm in it.  Besides, Cristi figures, the law will soon change anyway, so why ruin a young life?

A moral stand-off between a cop and his boss may be a simple premise, but it unfolds against a methodical, fascinating backdrop that's impossible to ignore.  In Romanian with subtitles and subtleties, "Police, Adjective" is a battle on two fronts:  words and wills.

When the film first lights up the screen, all we see for what seems like a near-eternity is a slumping man (Bucur as Cristi) walking, walking, walking through ordinary streets (the filmmaker's hometown of Vaslui in northeastern Romania).

If Porumboiu does nothing else with "Police, Adjective," he shows that an audience will sit still as his protagonist meticulously goes through an undercover cop's daily routine.  He prepares his file on the case and tries without much luck to get his co-workers to expedite the paperwork.  Cristi also does his best to avoid his superior officer, who's bringing increasing pressure to make Cristi stage his bust and close the case.

I can't think of another film that provides as much attention to detail.  When Cristi's home, for instance, we don't just see him share a meal with his wife.  Porumboiu's camera, and thus us as well, hang around for seconds on the goulash.

Ah, but that's nothing compared to the battle-of-wills showdown with the cynical police captain, performed superbly and with impeccable timing by Vlad Ivanov (the abortionist in "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days").

Quirky cinematic chestnuts can't be rushed.  "Police, Adjective" will stand as a prime example of that.

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