(Corneliu Porumboiu, Rom, 2009)
No wonder they used to call policemen ‘plods.’ As far as possible from Police, Action-Movie, this is an (intentionally) boring anti-thriller, deadpan with dialectics…
Police, usually, is a verb or a noun. It’s only towards the end of Corneliu Porumboiu’s enigmatic movie that we learn that – apparently – in Romania it’s also an adjective, used to describe detective fiction involving heroic cops pitting their wits against evil criminals. But, of course, it’s always been an adjective when in conjunction with the word ‘state,’ where much less heroic cops go about their pedantic duty in criminalising otherwise benign civilians who have broken the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.
Corneliu Porumboiu takes this disconnect, and creates a new kind of police fiction, less a thriller than an anti-thriller, pushing at your boredom threshold to engage in a complex, Kafka-esque theatre of absurdity. Porumboiu takes the neo-realist style of recent Romanian hits, and the deadpan post-Soviet eye for bureaucratic madness, and takes them to a place that is pregnant with meaning but also weighed down by the sheer laboriousness of narrative.
It’s the story of a cop – ironically named Cristi and played with near-suicidal weariness by Dragos Bucur – engaged in a pointless, routine case about a suspected drug dealer. Only problem: Cristi is sick of the sham, knowing full well that contemporary Romanian police work is still rooted in the dark days of Ceaușescu, still reliant on forcing the criminals to denounce each other under confession. But this is chiefly a case about possession of hash, hardly subversion of the state. And without the repression and torture of dictatorship to actually enforce those confessions, it’s likely that a foolish teenager, guilty of nothing worse than experimenting with drugs, will go to prison under the country’s outdated, draconian laws.
Cristi is a model policeman, going beyond the call of duty to get to the truth of the case. He spends his days tailing the suspects, calling in favours with truculent colleagues at Records, methodically analysing and detecting possible flaws in the apparently simplicity of the bust. And, by god, it is boring – intentionally so. Porumboiu drags out scenes in protracted long takes, the camera turning (when it turns at all) with all the torpid enthusiasm of a depressed snail. Through it all, Cristi’s unchanging expression suddenly makes you long for excitement in the background. It’s a minor triumph when we see a woman and her dog enter a shop behind him and, minutes later, walk out again. But Porumboiu is cruel: at one point kids are showing running around, playing football. Great excitement, probably, but they’re out of focus…
And focus is key here, because this is a film about the dangers of maintaining literalism when the context slips. In the film’s masterful, Brechtian final act, Cristi is summoned to his boss and, after an excruciating five-minute take of sitting in a waiting room, there follows a positively agonising ten minute take of the boss forcing Cristi to read aloud dictionary definitions: conscience, law, morality and – yes – police. It’s an audacious coup, thoroughly putting Cristi in his place…via the application of stunningly skewed logic.
The awful irony is that Cristi himself is probably headed himself into that mindset. Earlier in the film, he has an argument with his girlfriend about the crass poetry of a song’s lyric. The girlfriend makes a decent defence of their simple-but-solid literary merits, but Cristi is having none of it. “What would the field be without a flower?” It’d still be a field, he insists, as oblivious as his boss to the transcendental uplift of something new taking root. What would a policeman be without a conscience? A mindless tool of the state, a slavish follower of the law. And when you have the law, why bother spending days looking for the truth?