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The AFI Fest moved on Friday from its Hollywood home to the westside, coinciding with the start of Santa Monica’s American Film Market. This occasioned the welcome replay of a handful of titles, as well as some screenings exclusive to the new location. One of the former, widely-praised after an appearance at Cannes, was the Politist, adj., Romanian Corneliu Porumboiu’s follow-up to his 12:08 East of Bucharest.

The plot, such as it is, concerns provincial cop Cristi trailing a schoolboy suspected of selling hashish. The boy does very little at all as Cristi follows at a discrete but purposeful distance, and as the camera in turn does likewise. This is not thrilling stuff – we get to watch as Cristi eats his lunchtime soup and even the policeman hired to consult on the movie found the first part too boring on first viewing – but Porumboiu’s careful long-take camera is as concentrated in its attention as Cristi’s and compels the same from the engaged viewer.

At the end of the first day, we’re subjected to the same close depiction of the policeman’s work in the form of his written report, scrolling silently up the screen. Words are all-important here: shortly thereafter Cristi returns home to an amusing semantic debate with his wife over the lyrics of popular song (she displaying a satisfying unheralded intellectual command) in which he reveals himself to be mistrustful of metaphor; on the second night a spelling mistake in the report prompts discussion of negative pronominal adjectives.

The close attention to words prepares for the film’s climactic scene, its point, and the source of its power. Porumboiu has spoken of a desire to examine the word “conscience”: Cristi does not want to set up a sting operation that might ruin the boy’s life for something he believes will soon be legal in any case, as judged by the rest of Europe (a bit of a leap of faith). He and his colleague are called to meeting with the boss, who does not share this view. An electrifying Vlad Ivanov plays him with bristling commitment to accuracy in language and barely-restrained contempt for those who misuse it. He lets no slip go by (upbraiding the cops for “squeal” rather than “denounce” – that’s how criminals talk) and at Cristi’s refusal to sting on the weakly-defined grounds of conscience, out comes the dictionary. “Conscience” leads to “moral”, to “law” and to “police”. Simply via dictionary definitions and with a logic no less inexorable than it is elegant, a whole range of ethical questions are exposed, from individual morality to professional duty to the double-sided coin of “police” – upholder of the law yet adjectival before “corruption” or “state”.

It is a brilliant exposition of the moral and political power inherent in language, and of the definition of self via profession, with disturbing undercurrents of the morality that dictionary and job definitions are unable to embrace. Masterfully controlled, perfectly paced and enjoying a appropriately sly verbal humour (a telephone conversation unexpectedly begins “thanks, bye”) it achieves a low-key but widely-implicative perfection.

Rating: 8.68

Wacth the trailer.