Monday, December 21, 2009

Romanian Oscar Contender: Police, Adjective

Sometimes police work is dangerous, but it also has plenty of mundane drudgery, like stakeouts and paperwork. There are plenty of both in Romania’s latest submission for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award. An intellectual police procedural encompassing questions of conscience and semantics, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (trailer here), opens this Wednesday in New York.

Alex is just a dumb kid, who made a few mistakes. At least that is what Cristi thinks. Unfortunately, an anonymous informer phoned in a highly suspicious tip that Alex was dealing. Assigned to the case, Cristi is under pressure to bust the high school student in a sting operation. Reluctant to ruin the kid’s life for what he considers a minor offense, Cristi has been avoiding his commander through long stakeouts of his target.

If anyone is pushing, Cristi suspects it is another member of Alex’s circle, which is the direction he would like to take his investigation. However, he will need support to convince the strict Captain Anghelache. Naturally, it proves challenging to persuade his fellow civil servants not to take the path of least resistance.

Cristi might have a beastly boss, but at least he comes home to Anca, his understanding wife. Strangely though, both have a habit of correcting his grammar. While it is just a quirky couple thing with Anca, semantics take on tremendous significance when Cristi presents his report to Anghelache (in a scene that also supplies the film’s odd sounding title).

Distinctly paced by Porumboiu (previously in American theaters with 12:08 East of Bucharest), the first two thirds of Adjective largely capture the long slow rhythms of the stakeout experience, only to then shift gears, culminating with a viscerally uncomfortable, almost surreal verbal confrontation. Without question, this is a film that requires active concentration. It will absolutely madden ADD viewers accustomed to regular on-screen explosions. However, those who can adapt to the initially languid tempo will find it a strangely memorable viewing experience.

Everyone in Adjective looks believably unremarkable and everything looks thoroughly crummy. It is an utterly realistic world where the police feel compelled to lock their office doors when they leave. Dragos Bucur makes a convincing and relatively sympathetic everyman protagonist, wrestling with the ethical dilemmas and bureaucratic realities of the job. Likewise, Vlad Ivanov (best known as the abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days) is aptly intimidating as the feared Anghelache, while Ion Stocia provides very modest comedic relief as Cristi’s not particularly helpful partner Nelu. Indeed, they all seem like cops in a completely unromantic and un-heroic way.

Scores of great movies have used the issue of morally problematic orders as key dramatic devices. However, Romanian filmmakers have only been able to tackle such storylines in the last twenty years—for obvious reasons (namely the 1989 Revolution). Additionally, it is only with the emergence of the so-called Romanian New Wave, which includes figures like Porumbiou, Mungiu, and Cristi Puiu (director of the internationally acclaimed Death of Mr. Lazarescu), that Romanian cinema could embrace such a gritty, naturalistic depiction of a conflict between law and morality, even putting the film into Oscar contention.

With its truly original story arc and fascination with language, Adjective is unlike any other film released this year. Though very demanding, it is recommended for smart audiences who want to see something different at the movies. It opens Wednesday (12/23) at the IFC Film Center.