Semantics on Screen
Prize-winner at Cannes 2009 and shown at the Toronto and New York Festivals, Police, adjective/Politist, adj. is hailed as another satirical, “dryly funny comedy,” from Romania’s New Wave in the line of surprise sensation The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. A Kafkaesque view of official procedure and mentality, and of life’s absurd conundrums, writer-director-producer Corneliu Porumboiu’s second feature is the type that gathers critical goodwill but little audience.
Caught by a noncommittal camera in neo-documentary fashion, it is, like the first abovementioned, in seeming real time, with mention of plainclothesman Cristi’s (Dragos Bucur, who appeared in Lazarescu) having worked eight previous days on the case at hand and requesting more. Staking out a school and nearby kindergarten and a well-to-do gated house, on crepe-soled shoes he is not all that unnoticeable, so a pastry-shop clerk must be fed a lie about his guarding street work equipment.
The object of surveillance is Alex (Alexandru Sabadac), who smokes hashish with classmates Victor and his girlfriend Doina (Radu Costin and Anca Diaconu). The suspected source is Victor’s brother, away for the moment, but headquarters’s line is that the THC is intended to hook potential clients and, in any case, is punishable by fourteen years’ incarceration even if the rest of the continent has decriminalized it.
While Cristi picks up butts and observes Alex and his family and visitors, the camera is equally dispassionate in observing the observer. Something is incomplete about him, as he enters from offscreen or is cropped at knees and hairline or is only a nose, forehead and seated legs. Using his mobile phone as diary and timepiece, he chain-smokes Marlboros and gets no high at all from the foot-tennis games played with fellow officers, from books, newspapers, television or music, or talking with new wife Anca (Irina Saulescu). His only enthusiasm, slight at that, is the dishes she leaves for his solitary meals, and he cannot fathom why blared song lyrics use “symbols” instead of coming out and saying infinite, beauty, love.
Head inclined as though seeking more discarded roaches, his features as drab as the bleached Communist architecture, he dismisses the Romanian Academy and grammar corrections of his matter-of-fact reports, filmed and read aloud, but anyhow winds up disputing semantic niceties like denounce as against squeal or inform.
Not that existence is meaningless, but that it, or man’s perception of it, depends on Orwellian manipulation of the arbitrary sound-symbols of words to have desired conceptual denotations. Street noise present but nicely muted, the bulk of the nearly two hours is long dialogue-less scenes tailing Cristi tailing his man, intercut with his urging colleagues to hurry up with information.
There are dabs of sly humor, like the graffiti’d name of wrestler-actor John Cena. But overwhelmingly the languid construction, or form, mirrors content, the uneventful reflecting the dull everyday of real police routine rather than the usual police procedural.
Despite a keen eye for throwaway detail, the film will probably not sell to viewers. What most sinks the whole is an extended climax in which meanings are literally spelled out from a dictionary and chalked upon a board, while the three seated participants barely move. Dragging his feet about destroying a youngster’s life for a harmless offense soon to be taken off the books, anyway, Christi votes to wait and refuses to participate in an immediate sting.
Burly officemate Nelu (Ion Stoica) offers to carry out the entrapment in his stead, but “Boss” Captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov, of 4M3W2D) has God-fearing secretary Gina (Cerasela Trandafir) borrow a dictionary and buy a second one, to bolster his argument. For many static minutes, definitions of conscience, law, moral and police are simply read at us. Mr. Lazarescu is a Lazarus who cannot rise from the dead; perhaps Cristi reflects Saint John’s equating Christ with Logos, the Word (Greek). Definitions and etymologies, however, are the job of lexicographers and scholars, not cops or filmmakers.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)