Cuffed and bound, a changing Romania is put in the dock in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective when a conscience-niggled policeman starts questioning the law.
I Fought The Law by Mark Wilshin
Corneliu Porumboiu’s film is almost sufficiently explained by its title, Police, Adjective. It’s a policier as well as a linguistic analysis of what it is to be a law-enforcer; the tortuous discursive journey that persuades Cristi to abandon his own conscience-inflected ethics and to uphold the law of the land. The detective story is purposefully slight, tailing a joint-smoking schoolboy and his friends. Instead, Police, Adjective is an exposé of police prodecural and personal moral conflict, elegantly culminating in an uncut film-stealing scene where one man’s fate is decided with the aid of a dictionary. It’s more than words.
Cristi is a man of action. He tails his mark dawn till dusk, fluidly changing tempo either to hot-foot it in pursuit or linger covertly. He’s a free-speaking, soup-slurping man, and his lonely surveillance vigils with only his mobile to keep him connected are charismatically incorporated by Dragos Bucur. He’s a man of few words, but what he writes in his end-of-day reports are suitably clear and simple. Newly married and uncomplicated, he’s happy to have his spelling corrected by his wife or told when to change his sweater.
By contrast, his wife is a teacher; wordy and sentimental, listening to retro romantic ballads at full volume. They argue over Romanian spelling reforms and rhetorical devices, but their relationship reinforces the dialectic of the title; the insuperable difference between word and deed, between law and law-enforcer.
Like Poromboiu’s previous hit and Caméra d’Or winner 12:08 East Of Bucharest, the action takes place on the streets of Vaslui, the director’s home town. It’s a familiarity which lends another layer of truth to Poromboiu’s slow-building portrait of a Romania struggling to adapt to its new European cosmopolitanism and to its policeman out of sorts with the law.
The Vaslui police are experts in the small-fry criminals of hashish-smokers and prostitutes. A quick sting and smoke out those higher up the chain. Except Cristi is unwilling to have Victor’s arrest on his conscience (for the sake of a couple of spliffs, the boy will either be forced to rat on his brother or go to prison himself), and so the case sprawls into a hunt for the hash supplier until Cristi is finally hauled up in front of his superiors for wasting time. The theme of betrayal though runs like a geological seam through the film. Victor is squealed on by his friend Alex over a girl. And when Cristi runs a check on a number plate, the letters I and C are phoneticised into Judas and Christ. Even the name Cristi suggests he’ll be betrayed before the final reel’s over. Doubly betrayed, by the word of the law and by himself.
Cristi’s conscientious objection feels right, not the “Just following orders, m’lud” defence of Nuremberg, a complete break from the repressive measures carried out by Ceausescu’s secret police, the Securitate. Of course, there is always a divergence between personal ethics and the law, but in most Western democracies there are ledgers of outdated acts the police are happy to turn a blind eye to. But in Poromboiu’s Romania, it is not a question of interpretation. This conservative absolutism is a hang-up from a different age, and Romania’s pursuit of petty criminals singles it out as backwardly repressive, but also perhaps enviably crime-free.
In a climactic battle of words, with the dictionary as Law, definitions are compared until Cristi’s conscience is bent to the will of the statute book. In the end he’s left with a clear choice, either to follow his conscience or to enforce the letter of the law. The man of action is repeatedly failed by language, mocked for his definition of conscience, corrected on his archaic use of nicio, and now his destiny hangs on a lexical conspiracy. And with a final scene of Cristi chalking out on a blackboard the details of the sting, it’s clear he’s sold his conscience downriver for a job, a mortgage, a life. He fought the law and the law won.
Police, Adjective is released in the UK on 1st October 2010.