Many of the films associated with the Romanian New Wave, most notably 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, have been set during the 80s, during the crest of the tyrannical Ceausescu years; to understand what's happening now, those films suggest, we must look back to recent history. But Corneliu Porumboiu's movies go one reflective step farther: they are set in the present, looking back at the past, so we may understand the present. The marvelous 12:08 East of Bucharest examined, 16 years later, the circumstances of the revolution that brought down the Communist government, but it's real purpose was to bemoan the failure of Romania to build a better society from that opportunity. His latest, Police, Adjective, another masterpiece, grapples with a similar idea. It's also about language.
Dragos Bucur plays Cristi, a detective trailing an assignment: an adolescent who enjoys the occasional joint; the teen has been ratted out by his pal, presumably so the former friend can move in on the user's girl. (Such personal and petty fingerings are normal in Iraq and Afghanistan, too!) Much of the film follows Cristi as he follows the kid around; the cop has a habit of emerging from the margins of frames, almost spectrally—like a held-over ghost, perhaps, from a secret police past. It's Vertigo-esque, just without any dramatic leaps into the river. Porumboiu lulls the viewer into the dry routines of policework, underscoring the pointlessness of enforcing outmoded laws, to say nothing of the resources wasted. Police, Adjective is not so much concerned with the politics of cinema as it is with simple politics.
Cristi wants to find the dealers and forget the kid; he notes that in the rest of Europe, no one is arrested for sharing a little hashish: Romanian law is behind the times. That shouldn't come as any surprise, given the vivid sense of ruined place that Porumboiu captures; Romania at large is out of date. At the police station, bathed in the vomit-green glow of neon lights, the lockers are rusting, the paint is chipped and peeling from the walls; the computers look older than typewriters—and possibly don't even work, as we never see anyone use them. At an apartment building, the mailboxes have long since lost their little doors; the occasional letter simply juts out into the hall. Outdoors, the days are perpetually cloudy, the palette unbrokenly gray. If the films of the Romanian New Wave share a common motif, it's bleak realism rooted in scene and setting.
But Porumboiu also explores a philosophical angle that transcends the film's political materialism (and that of his peers); Police, Adjective looks at not only the aggravating backwardness of Romanian government—a system run by secretaries and paper pushers, where a young man's future potentially rests on stroking the egos of bureaucrats—but also the pernicious role that simple language plays in the culture. Quasi-comic digressions on grammar, usage and literary devices are peppered through the film. (At one point, Cristi mocks the lyricism of a pop song his wife plays on repeat; like 12:08 East of Bucharest's quick rebuke of handheld cameras, it's a bit of aesthetic criticism straight from the director, a defense of his brutally unsentimental filming style. Often shooting from behind fences or in unedited takes, Porumboiu's confining and merciless camera reflects the oppression of the daily life he depicts.) But these lingual issues don't quite come to the fore until a brilliant late set piece, in which Cristi's boss Anghelache (the remarkable Vlad Ivanov, 4 Months...'s abortionist) uses a dictionary to guide a Socratic dialogue (a la Plato's Crito) about State Law vs. Moral Law. The former may win out, but the point is that when these two are so radically alienated, when law is founded on semantics rather than true morality, your society has failed-and this time, Romania, there's no more Ceausescu around to blame.