Even for a super-minimalist, take-heavy piece of mega-art cinema, the Romanian Police, Adjective takes things a bit far. Our hero, young but already world weary plainclothes detective Cristi (Dragos Bucur), spends the majority of the film quietly, uneventfully trailing a young suspect through the crumbling streets of post-Communist Vasliu. (Director Cornlieu Porumboiu’s last film, the very funny 12:08 East of Bucharest, mostly entailed a TV program going hilariously awry. Clearly, he’s no James Cameron maximalist.)
What is this kid’s crime? Smoking hashish. Cristi’s supervisor wishes for a bust, which would slam him into an eight-year sentence (three-and-a-half years, probably, since he’s from a good famly). But Cristi’s reluctant. Once Romania joins the EU, it will likely share the rest of Europe’s lax marijuana laws, and he doesn’t wish his conscience to be burdened with a needlessly destroyed life. His superiors are less sympathetic, falling back on cold, canned “That’s the law and that’s it” lines.
Like Porumboui’s previous film, as well as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Police, Adjective limns a country mired in post-revolutionary malaise, still directionless 20 years after the overthrow of the draconian Nicolae Ceausescu. Cristi’s wanderings take him through streets that look interchangeably miserable; even the local university is as soul-crushingly drab as any other building. That includes the police station, whose offices resemble no less than utility closets. The sameness of each locale, their blandness slyly exacerbated by mostly static, intentionally artless long takes, may try the patience, but they also mirror the existential pointlessness of Cristi’s mission.
Distributors IFC Films have advertised Police, Adjective as a dry black comedy, and that’s true because Porumboui portrays human interaction in modern-day Romania as hilariously touchy and argumentative. Every conversation devolves into a semantic debate. When Cristi’s wife gives a ballad song multiple spins in their apartment, he expresses his annoyance by picking apart the song’s inane lyrics apart, only to be challenged at every nitpick.
All this bickering culminates in a climactic, 20-minute set piece which has become known, both fondly and less so, as “the dictionary showdown”: seeking to eradicate Cristi’s reluctance, the police captain (Vlad Ivanov, as calmly intimidating here as he was on the other side of the law in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) engages in a deliberation so heated it can only be settled by dictionary definitions. In the end, it comes down to debate styles: Cristi is intelligent but he’s unable to defend his positions against the argumentative skills of his superior. In the world of Police, Adjective—which is also, in several unnerving ways, is also ours—it’s not enough to be right. B+