Saturday Night At The Movies

CSI: Vaslui

By Dennis Hartley

Somebody’s watching me: Police, Adjective

“What do you think; would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”
-Fyodor Dostoevsky

I think most people would agree that Bullittand The French Connectionqualify as two of the most seminal and recognizable examples of the “cop thriller”. Although each film has garnered a reputation primarily based upon its respective Big Chase Scene, what makes them most fascinating to me is the attention to minutia in the more static (some might say “boring”) parts of the narrative. In Bullitt, it’s a scene where Steve McQueen’s title character comes home after a shift. He walks into a corner grocery and perfunctorily scoops up about a week’s worth of TV dinners, without discerning their contents, then retires to his modest apartment to basically zone out. It’s a protracted sequence, virtually wordless, that may at first glance appear superfluous, but speaks volumes about the character. A likeminded scene in The French Connection depicts police detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) shivering outside in the cold for hours, wolfing street vendor food and drinking bad coffee out of a Styrofoam cup as he stakes out his quarry (Fernando Rey), who is enjoying a leisurely gourmet meal in an upscale restaurant. Both films demonstrate how unglamorous and mundane police work actually is in practice. It’s an underlying reality that most filmmakers working within the genre these days generally choose to overlook; more often than not, they opt to just “cut to the chase”, as it were.

“Unglamorous and mundane” could be a good descriptive for Police, Adjective, the latest film from Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest). In fact, this is the type of film that requires any viewer weaned on typical Hollywood grist to first unlearn what they have previously learned about crime dramas. There are no foot chases, car chases, shootouts, takedowns or perp walks. There are no fast cuts or pulse-pounding musical cues rolled out to telegraph “Dramatic Tension Ahead!” In short, the viewer is forced to (gulp!) pay attention, to observe, to surveil…to “stake out” the characters and events, if you will. The devil is in the details (you know-like real detective work.) And your reward? Well, you may not solve a major crime, but you could reach a certain state of enlightenment via a 15-minute climax involving a Dostoevskian discourse on the dialectics of law, morality and conscience (What?! You mean nothing blows up?!).

You do get some ample time to, um, observe, especially since you are watching a plainclothes cop named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) as he surveils a teenage suspect who may or may not be a low-level pot dealer…pretty much in real time for the first half of the film. Then, as if we haven’t received an adequate taste of Cristi’s job-related tedium, Porumboiu appends each sequence with a static, several-minute long close-up of the officer’s handwritten report, annotating every detail of what we have just seen. It’s almost as if we’re reading the shooting script; which made me wonder if the director was impishly conveying an allusion to the relative tedium of the filmmaking process as well (if you’re a fidgety viewer with a short attention span- consider yourself duly warned). Based on my description so far, you may be saying to yourself “This movie sounds like a waste of time.” Funny thing is, that is exactly what Cristi is thinking about his stakeout. He is becoming increasingly chagrined that his boss (Vlad Ivonov, an actor I took special note of in my review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) insists that he keeps digging until he finds cause to set up a sting, because he intuits that it’s merely a case of a few kids just “being kids”-hanging out and getting high together, as opposed to a major drug operation. Besides, Cristi feels in his heart of hearts that his country is on the verge of joining other European nations in lightening up the penalties for personal pot use (yes-the innate stupidity of most pot laws appears to be universal, and requires no translation).

Cristi’s boss, however, sees this subjective attitude toward his assignment as an opportunity to teach the young officer an object lesson about the meaning of “duty”; literally starting with the etymology of the word “police” (hence the film’s unusual title). I know that sounds as dull as dish water, and it’s really difficult to convey exactly what it is that makes this film work so well; but if you stick with it, you will find yourself entertained, despite the challenging pacing. It may sound like it has the makings of a sober, introspective drama, but there is actually a great deal of comedy throughout. It’s not “ha-ha” funny, but extremely wry and deadpan funny (think Jim Jarmusch). One scene in particular, in which Cristi and his school teacher wife (Irina Saulescu) spiritedly banter about the lyrics of a pop song (literal vs. metaphorical context) is a real gem. I thought the film was also a fascinating glimpse at a post-E.U. Romania, and the unenviable task of redefining “policing” in a formerly oppressive police state still gingerly feeling its way as a democracy. Besides-when is the last time you saw a cop thriller wherein the most formidable weapon brandished was…a Romanian dictionary?

Note: The film is available on PPV in some markets…which gives you the option of, y’know…zipping through those surveillance scenes (I mean, erm, that’s what I’ve heard).