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Police, Adjective: Deadpan Romanian Morals

Corneliu Porumboiu, whose new film Police, Adjective is the Romanian entry in the Best Foreign Film race and a festival favorite (New York, Cannes, Toronto), talks about his fascination with moral complexity, language and, yes, the dictionary.

After making 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?), the film that (along with the tour de force 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, or 4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile) was the high-water mark for the recent “Romanian New Wave,” Corneliu Porumboiu is back, masterful long takes and all. His latest film, Police, Adjective, or Politist, adj. (which is the Romanian entry for Best Foreign Film in the 2010 Oscar race) follows a few days in the life of Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a cop who is getting ready to mount a sting operation on a small-time drug dealer. As he becomes more involved in the operation, Cristi begins to have ethical misgivings about the sting.

However, as Porumboiu dwells on the finer points of how power structures manipulate language, we realize that the cop storyline is more of a MacGuffin than anything else. This film is really about language—how it traps, alienates, condemns, and baffles those who make the mistake of believing it is an adequate means of expression. The film’s hilarious climactic scene is easily the greatest use of a dictionary in cinematic history.

And in keeping with the power of language, there is no question that Porumboiu’s own rigid cinematic language is a force to be reckoned with; his uncompromising static takes, which seem to last into infinity, could not be managed by a defter hand. Tribeca Film sat down with Porumboiu during the New York Film Festival in September.

Tribeca Film: One of the things that struck me about the film was that it has an incredibly morally complex conflict, and in the end, one of the characters attempts to solve it with something as simple as a dictionary. How did you envision that juxtaposition?

Corneliu Porumboiu: From the beginning, it’s a movie about meanings, and sense. It’s about a cop who doesn’t believe in the law anymore. I learned about these reports that the police have to write every day, according to specific rules and forms. And that made me realize I wanted to make a movie about language, about words and meanings. So that led me to the dictionary scene. When I got to the word “conscience,” I asked ten, fifteen friends of mine to define it, and each one of them had a different point of view. At the end of the day, each one of us doesn’t get to understand the other.

police, adjective

Tribeca: It seemed like the dictionary was a metaphor for the system’s greater failings. The system of organization is limited and inadequate.

CP: In the modern world, it’s not a bible, it’s a dictionary.

Tribeca: I thought your command of long, static takes was very impressive, the way they allow scenes to unfold. How did you decide upon those takes?

CP: I choose the point of view from which to tell the story. In this case, I chose the first person—you see Cristi all the time, you are in his world, it’s his story. I think the takes get into a good rhythm. It’s a slow rhythm—I think it’s eight minutes until the first line of dialogue in the film. After that, I think there’s an inner structure that you find in editing and so on. I conceived the film as having a lot of waiting, inaction.

Tribeca: As those takes go on and on, you begin to sense the humor of the filmmaker. You begin to sense a detachment regarding the absurdity of the scenes.

CP: It’s an absurd point of view, for me. The law is absurd. So I was preparing you for the last scene. My dramatic sense comes from absurdity. This rhythm, this touch, is absurd from the beginning.

Tribeca: In many of the lengthy dialogue scenes, the conversation, superficially, will have absolutely nothing to do with advancing the plot—the discussion of Prague, or the lyrics to a pop song. They also got at a kind of absurdity.

CP: I think cinema today, the major films, they often feel like they are coming from literature. But for me, I think music deals more with cinema. It’s an art that is developing in a certain time, with a certain tone, rhythm. It’s more important to talk about time in cinema, time elapsing. You define a certain something about your character—time spent waiting, in long shots and so forth. Time spent being. As opposed to continually cutting on action, and so on, which you find in present cinema.

I’m not so concerned with story. Of course, when I decided to make a movie about meanings, I arrived at the scene with the pop song, the grammar of the lyrics, which helps prepare the audience for the final scene.


Tribeca: What was your research process like for the film? Did you spend time with the police?

CP: Yes. I wanted to learn all the steps that they were supposed to do, procedural things. And that’s where the idea of the reports, the language, worked its way in. All these reports, these things form you. I think each one of us, when he’s working in a field—we have structure everywhere. I have structure in my scripts. You have structure when you’re writing an article. They have structure in writing a report. I was noticing that in their reports, they were writing in a certain way—first person, very detached. So I was looking at the character, and I was thinking, okay, after one day, he represents the reality of the situation in one page. And I realized that writing a report like that every day influences your way of understanding the situation.

Tribeca: In what way?

CP: Because it’s a certain way of writing, in the third person. You’re more detached. You look at times, when you did things, actions—it’s a certain way of seeing. There’s a lot of bureaucracy. This forms you, in a way. The structure forms you.

Tribeca: It’s ironic, because it seems like that’s similar to the way you work—the form of your film is what dictates the meaning, the content.

CP: They come at the same time. I have a certain taste of cinema: I think that Godard was right—cinema is an opinion about the world, and it’s an opinion about cinema. At the same time, I have this visual sense of the movie, the mise en scene I want to propose, and these come at the same time as the story, when I’m writing it. For example, there are some scripts, they may be fine dramaturgically, but they may not give me an angle of directing, shooting them. So it’s both, because cinema is a medium, and I’m trying to define myself in this medium.

Police, Adjective opens at the IFC Center in New York on December 23. It is available through IFC on Demand on the same date.



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