Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 26, 2009 8:17 am 
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Realism and didacticism in the new Romanian cinema

Young director Porumboliu, whose 2007 12:08 East of Bucharest has been much admired, is having fun here, but the audience may not be. The rigor with which Politist, Adj. explores a minor moral issue in terms of definitions and uses of words may be interesting, but the emphasis on the dullest aspects of police work leave one numbed. This is a film that makes you realize why Hollywood makes police procedurals the way they do. Paint takes a long time to dry. We don't have to watch the whole process.

The virtually real-time narrative follows young undercover cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur) in the little Romanian town of Vasliu on a surveillance of a teenage student, Viktor (Radu Costin) who's known as a pot user. His superior Nelu (Ion Stoica) wants to arrest the boy. Cristi would prefer to wait and find the dealer, and feels arresting Viktor will ruin the kid's life for nothing, especially since European trends toward decriminalization of marijuana suggest that soon this won't be illegal in Romania either.

Cristi's recently married to Anca (Irina Saulescu), a schoolteacher, and his encounters with her at home consist mainly of debates about word use and grammar. Since Porumboliu shows two of Cristi's surveillance reports in their handwritten form so we can read through them word for word, he's obviously interested in the ways police work is partly shaped by a sense of how it will be mapped out in words for superiors to peruse.

Porumboliu likes following the (perhaps Asian-influenced) fixed-camera approach. This is realistic enough in following a surveillance, and a lot of Crist's time is spend standing around waiting. It's firmly emphasized that even to get report from other parts of police HQ he must wait and haggle over delivery times. A young woman who has access to files wants to leave early to see her boyfriend. Another who deals with ID photos is too busy and resents being rushed. The film is definitely accurate and realistic in depicting low-level police work. Cristi is dogged and patient; he has to be.

One scene that calls much attention to itself shows Cristi eating a dinner Anca has prepared in front of the fixed camera while Anca sits behind a wall, watching her computer and listening to an inane love song that they then debate. The restrained irony of the scene is subsumed in a sense that life is a matter of drudgery and dry debates. In the two scenes between Cristi and Anca, it's all about words.

When he's told repeatedly that he must carry out a "sting operation" (perhaps not the right term?), that is, set up a police arrest with backup, hidden cameras, and well-planned logistics, Cristi refuses point-blank. That is, until a prolonged session with a colleague and the Captain, Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov, the hard-hearted abortionist of the much-celebrated 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) during which the superior has a Romanian dictionary brought in and orders Cristi to read from it the definitions of "conscience" and "moral" and "law."

Perhaps due to the convincing naturalism of earlier sequences, the oddity of this scene, the most dramatic, in a sense, of the film, may slip by unnoticed, though it seems extremely far-fetched; or, at least, like everything else, drawn out far longer than necessary. One can't help thinking that a good police officer would simply tell Cristi what he has to do and not conduct a class in semantics and etymology. Perhaps the cops in Vasliu aren't very busy. Word is that a lot of the Romanian gangsters have transferred operations to Italy.

Cristi's desire to avoid arresting a minor teenage drug offender because of anticipated future liberalization of Romanian law understandably doesn't go over with his superiors. In fact his repeated insubordination in word might be expected to call for threats of discipline or expulsion, but such is not the case here. Nor is it clear why the cops don't want to catch a bigger fish. Police, Adjective has its own special point of view that may appeal to some, but for this viewer it is yet another illustration that the widespread anointment of the "new Romanian cinema" as experiencing a "renaissance" is somewhat premature.

Shown as part of the New York Film Festival 2009 at Lincoln Center. IFC Films has picked it up for US distribution.

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