In his two infuriatingly good feature films, Corneliu Porumboiu prefers a docile camera to capture his ostensibly inconspicuous images. Associated with the Romanian New Wave, he films quietly, from the corners of ordinary living rooms and unremarkable kitchens. He placidly observes hallways and office spaces as though the camera had been placed in position, and left unattended. His movies utilize very few pans. It’s a stationary glimpse, a seemingly still life view, incrementally gaining momentum and meaning as one scene is laid upon another. In 2007’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, he told the slowly developing tale of the owner of a public-access television station commemorating the 16th anniversary of the fall of the Nicolae Ceauşescu regime by hosting a call-in retrospective. Eyewitnesses, both in the studio and at home, debate the genesis of the revolution in their eastern Romanian city. The camera remains as rigid as a palace soldier as the film climaxes with a flurry of animated, contentious and contradictory panelists and callers. Interestingly, unlike his longer works, Porumboiu’s entertaining 39-minute short film, 2004’s Liviu’s Dream, about a small-time criminal wannabe with an ever-increasing portfolio of schemes and personal dilemmas, roams rooftops and bedsits with a spirited, energetic liveliness. At feature length, his films become more sedate, methodical, and existential. Each is exasperating in its own way, yet both reward patience.
His latest project – the contemplative Police, Adjective – begins unobtrusively with an older teen trailed by a young man through the dissipating morning haze of a succession of Budapest streets. Like the shadow, the camera keeps its distance during the uneventful quotidian journey. As with 12:08 East of Bucharest, there’s a detached quality to the opening scenes as the film unhurriedly unfolds without immediate dramatic consequence. The cop, a newlywed named Cristi, played by the earthy and unaffected Dragos Bucur, is a diligent but unambitious police officer in his mid-20s. Based on a tip that the kid has a narcotics connection in his family, Cristi has been following the youth as he goes about his unspectacular routine: he walks to school, chats with a couple of friends after classes, smokes a joint in a playground with them, then heads home. Cristi tails the lad like this as days become a week. (Porumboiu and his longtime collaborative cinematographer, Marius Panduru, effectively concoct stakeouts where not much happens; the camera spends most of its time focused on the hunter rather than the quarry.) The conscientious but bored Cristi files daily reports, in his grey office, which smack of tedium.
With time to think during the long, quiet hours on the street, Cristi realizes the rationale for tailing the kid is flawed. The vibe he’s picking up from his bosses is that busting the kid will force him to rat out an older brother, an unseen trafficker who darts in and out of the country undetected. Cristi begins to doubt whether the student knows anything of value and questions the snitch’s motivation. And he fears that his immediate superior will tire of this fruitless pursuit, but won’t condone a larger operation focusing on the sibling. Instead, his boss may just order the easy bust.
Cristi expresses his qualms to a higher up he can trust, but this mentor can only empathize and counsel; he can’t override Cristi’s superior’s wishes. The scene gains its effectiveness from the camera shooting the two almost exclusively in profile, with both men in the frame in an office longer than it is wide. The conversation is informal but pointed, especially after Cristi shares the view that the kid shouldn’t be condemned to years of incarceration for so little. (Clearly, Romanian drug laws appear harsh enough towards even modest personal use that Doug Benson and Brian Posehn won’t be touring there in the near future.) Cristi is cautioned, not for the last time, to carry out the law, not interpret it.
Porumboiu extracts significance from the more mundane daily moments as Cristi’s frustration grows. Hunched over a soup bowl at his kitchen table, wearing the same vest he’ll throw on four days in a row, Cristi breaks off a piece of bread and swirls it around his full plate as though he’s searching for clues, or perhaps just clarity. Cristi may appear to be an unsophisticated, beat cop who wasn’t formally educated – his wife corrects the grammar in his reports – but his ambivalence and moral uncertainty define him as a scholar.
As in 12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective culminates in a tense match of wills. In the previous film it was broadcast over the airways; here the showdown is private but fraught with more exacting consequences. The final sequence pits Cristi against his supercilious superior, Anghelache, portrayed by the impressive Vlad Ivanov – who cast such a chilling pall in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In a well-written scene filmed mostly from the back of the superior’s sizable office, the arrogant Anghelache methodically parses Cristi’s arguments in favor of abandoning the case against the teen. As with so many clever intellectual bullies, Anghelache purposely culls any rationale from his hypotheses which would weaken his stance. The deliberate scene, where voices are rarely raised, draws its intensity from the unwavering, minimally-edited camera and the juxtaposition to the film’s earlier, dominant focus on Cristi’s almost meditative internal struggle. Police, Adjective contains less humor and less cheekiness than 12:08 East of Bucharest, but in place of those characteristics Porumboiu creates moods rife for reflection. But perhaps given the somewhat glacial pace, many of the questions are not specifically raised by the film but by a viewer prone to rumination. In the end, Police, Adjective gives a guy time to think.