Detective stories imply that mysteries can be solved, or at least rationally explained. Even the most debased example is a secular article of faith that also confirms a universe in which guilt is determined and the guilty accorded just deserts. Such are the underpinnings of 34-year-old Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu’s remarkably self-effacing and highly intelligent comedy Police, Adjective—a philosophical crime film that, as the investigation of an investigation, substitutes irony for suspense.
Police, Adjective focuses almost entirely on the banal details of a particular case. Three high school kids have been reported smoking weed. For much of the movie, we watch the conscientious young plainclothes detective (Dragos Bucur) watching them (an example of what Walter Benjamin might have deemed applied flâneurism), then dutifully collecting bits of evidence and filing reports in which the raw data of clues is transformed into a dossier and the basis for an argument.
Porumboiu’s estimable debut, the bleak farce 12:08 East of Bucharest—named for the moment that Romania’s Communist regime collapsed on live TV—was concerned with the malleability of historical truth. Police, Adjective has a related interest in vérité. Based on objective observation, it’s voluptuously nondescript—almost documentary in its locations, namely the filmmaker’s provincial hometown Vaslui, also used in 12:08—but more focused on a specific situation.
Although it’s not entirely clear exactly which kid is committing the crime of supplying the others with pot, there’s enough free-floating incrimination to bust someone. The detective’s supervisor orders him to run a sting and make the collar, but the detective, who has concluded that the “squealer” is setting up his friend (who is unlikely to denounce the apparent source of the drugs, his older brother), demurs. Making his own judgment on the evidence, the detective deems the crime too minor to warrant prosecution, particularly under a Draconian law he believes will be amended once Romania joins the European Union. In this disinclination to identify and punish, the cop not only transgresses the rules of the detective genre but also confounds the state’s need to identify individual guilt and evade collective responsibility.
With its series of apparently absurd routines, shot (Romanian-style) in long takes and real-time, Police, Adjective has something of the deadpan theatricality of early Jim Jarmusch—not only in its framing, but its dialogue: Words are carefully parsed; every conversation has its own logic. In the first of two set pieces, the detective returns home and is irritated to find his wife at the computer, watching and rewatching a YouTube performance of an inane pop song. The couple engages in a lengthy analysis of the song’s lyrics. When he questions their rational meaning (“What would the sea be without the sun?”), she defends their linguistic structure.
The cop’s wife also works in law enforcement—a professional grammarian who helpfully vets her husband’s reports—and it turns out that the cop’s supervisor is a stickler for words as well. The essentially good-natured conjugal riff on pop-music semantics is replayed to more troubling effect in the movie’s climactic scene, when the supervisor uses a dictionary and a blackboard to turn the detective’s use of the words “law,” “conscience,” and “police” against him. That the supervisor is played by Vlad Ivanov, the sinister abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and casually drops the term “dialectics” to explain his method, gives this riveting sequence an unmistaken political subtext.
Made by one who grew up in a police state (note the adjectival use) and watched it fall apart, Police, Adjective is a deadly serious as well as dryly humorous analysis of bureaucratic procedure and, particularly, the tyranny of language. Images may record reality, but words define it. In the end, Police, Adjective ponders the nature of moral obligation, something that might apply to filmmakers as well as police detectives.