By Jeffrey Overstreet
I’ve just seen a hell of a film.
Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective—hailed as the latest masterpiece of the Romanian New Wave—is likely to convince American moviegoers that they should avoid the Romanian New Wave.
The movie moves at a snail’s pace. (The most energetic scene in the film is a ponderous conversation in an office.)
It’s repetitive. (We watch the main character, a plain-clothes policeman, stand and shiver for days during his surveillance of an apartment building.)
And it’s visually dispiriting. (On the bleak gray streetscapes of Vasliu, Romania, a splash of colorful graffiti is a welcome sight when you can get it.)
Have I talked you into seeing it yet?
Let me keep trying, because it’s a worth seeing—especially for those interested in language, and how words can become instruments of power.
The central character, a cop named Cristi, is as sullen and agitated as Adam Sandler at the beginning of Punch-drunk Love or Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. He follows Victor, a pot-smoking teen, in hopes of identifying his supplier. But the more time he spends on surveillance, the more his perspective changes. He begins to feel silly, obsessively smoking cigarettes and then picking at stubs of hashish in the gravel. The punishment he’ll bring down on these teens for their foolish—but certainly not wicked—behavior starts to seem extreme.
Fans of arthouse cinema will have more patience than most for these scenes of prolonged silence. They’ll sense how the quiet makes Cristi’s growing confusion and distress more palpable.
But the silences serve another function as well. They create a particular pressure that is only relieved by language. We’re accustomed to being entertained with constant talk, and we expect easy access to our characters thoughts. We anticipate conversations that will make Cristi’s inner life clearer to us. Instead we get seemingly incidental talk, like Cristi’s coworker reading him a newspaper article about health.
But the film’s climactic confrontation over vocabulary revved my mind. It sent me out of the theater rethinking the film’s conversations—all five or six of them—hoping to connect the dots.
I’m still mulling it over. But let me propose that the seemingly incidental conversation about the newspaper article may be crucial to interpreting the film.
The article concerns a recent medical study. Doctors have apparently decided that it’s unhealthy for us to drink hot beverages when we have a cold. Okay, fine. But why do we need the details, especially all of that stuff about the proper function of the human body’s mucus membrane?
Well, what does the mucus membrane do? It arrests bacteria and keeps it from spreading. Hot drinks, the report tells us, can dry up and destroy that membrane, thus worsening the infection.
The movie gave me plenty of time to chew on this exchange. Eventually I thought, Aha! What’s Cristi doing out there, monitoring that apartment building? Isn’t he trying to arrest the spread of a cultural contagion? Isn’t that what police do?
But the more I tried to make my idea work, the more I felt myself straining. After all, a mucus membrane is a fragile and vulnerable detail, disrupted by heat and pressure—not a very good metaphor for law enforcement.
So I backed up and started again. The doctors’ findings about hot beverages were quite a surprise, a contradiction of the common wisdom about common colds. It represents a shift in our understanding of what we should or shouldn’t do when we have a cold.
Similarly, Cristi is aware that there is a major shift coming in Romania’s understanding of what they should and shouldn’t do. As Communism collapses, they’re moving to adopt the standards of the European union. When that happens, it’s unlikely that policemen like Cristi will waste whole days following adolescents and sniffing the crumbs of their hashish.
He must be eager for that change. His conscience is telling him to give these kids a break. But his superior officers, quite conditioned to enforce the laws of a totalitarian regime, are not about to consider making any exception—even if Cristi argues that by holding back they might identify, catch, and stop a greater threat.
The endangered element in the article is a mucus membrane. The endangered element in Cristi’s scenario is his conscience—the spiritual "membrane" meant to guard him against wrongdoing. But if fear and pressure burn it out, what will happen to his spiritual health?
We see Cristi suffering as his girlfriend plays and replays a cheesy pop song about love and romance. The lyrics aren’t literal—they’re poetic and mysterious and suggestive. They drive him nuts. But as he stands in the cold, pondering how to trap these teens, the poetry haunts him. They’re alive with something that the cold hard lines of “procedure” can’t contain.
As in The Lives of Others, a man who works to turn the grinding gears of the law is distracted by beauty. He comes to suspect that there may be a vocabulary more important than words like “legal” and “criminal.”
So when Cristi’s supervisor Nelu—played to chilling effect by Vlad Ivanov. the abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days—brings out the Romanian dictionary and demands that Cristi define "conscience,” the film reaches its climactic confrontation. (Nelu also asks his secretary to define it. When she starts to say something about God, he silences her. You can’t let God into a conversation about oppressive states, or manmade walls start falling down.)
I may have offended a reader or two by my use of the word “hell” in the opening paragraph. But it wasn’t just an expression. The silences, the street’s hard lines, and the law’s methodical process—these things convey a living nightmare. But Cristi is a beating heart. And if he takes a stand, he’ll cause the law’s suspicious eye to focus on him. He’ll end up scrambling to escape a trap.
And that’s why the film’s closing shot is so perfect. (But I won’t spoil it for you.)
We might worry that Police, Adjective wants us to sympathize with a lawbreaker. But we’re not being asked to cast aside the law. We’re asked to question its limits. When power is corrupted by pride, the controls that create order can become overheated, burning dry that delicate instrument—the moral law written on our hearts.