Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Policework and Grammar

Anyone in the mood for a police story with no action and a tense climactic scene that involves three cops in an office debating the meaning of words over a dictionary?  I suggest the 2009 Romanian film Police, Adjective, directed by Corneliu Porumboiu.

The setting is a city in Romania, the time period post-Communist. A young detective named Cristi is investigating a group of teenagers who have been smoking and selling hashish.  His main focus is one boy in the group, Victor, who another in the group has informed on. Cristi spends a lot of time following Victor, but he believes that the squealer pointed him in Victor's direction primarily because the squealer likes the same girl Victor does and would like Victor out of the way. Besides this, Cristi dislikes the sheer pettiness of Romania's hash and marijuana laws, which, he insists, will soon be changed to match the laws elsewhere in Europe.  In Prague, for example, where he went recently with his wife, people can carry and smoke small amounts of pot in the streets without fear of arrest.  As he continues to tail his main suspect and other members of the teenage hash ring, putting his file together, as ordered, so he can present it to his superiors who are expecting him to lead a major bust on the ring, he becomes more and more resistant to the idea of continuing with the case.  Why ruin Victor and the others' lives for such a small offense that will soon not even be on the books?  Not unlike cops you see in far splashier cop movies, he has a crisis of conscience, torn between his own sense of morality and the duty to the state's law he is supposed to uphold. His dilemma puts him at odds with his commander, and that puts his career at risk.

Police, Adjective is a procedural as unglamorous as one can be.  Almost the entire film consists of scenes of Cristi either tailing his suspects or dealing with police bureaucracy.  Scenes of his home life with his wife have no dramatics; he and his wife eat dinner and talk about the meaning of certain lyrics in a song she is listening to on her computer.  Post-Ceausescu Romania is a fairly bleak place and people conduct their lives without flash, in a somewhat subdued manner.  Still, the film is shot through with black humor, an understanding of the absurdities of organizational and bureaucratic life, and the story itself, without any fighting or shoot-outs or loud confrontations, becomes compelling.  Suspense builds.  Will Cristi follow his own conscience (as he himself calls it) or do what his superiors tell him to do and uphold the letter of the law?  And what does conscience mean anyway?

It's Cristi's commander who, when Cristi refuses to go through with the bust on the teenagers, calls for a dictionary, a Romanian dictionary, and we get the extended scene between the commander, Cristi, and a third officer where they discuss and debate the dictionary meanings of a number of words including conscience and law.  

"Lads. Know what we're doing here?" the commander asks.

"Having a meeting?" the third officer says.

"No," the commander says.  "Dialectics, that's what it's called. Know what that means?"

The last word they look up in the dictionary is police, and there is more than one meaning to be considered.  We tend to think of the word as a noun, but let's not overlook police as an adjective, as in police state.  

What will Cristi do? The discussion ends with the commander leaving him a few hours to decide.  Will he make the bust as directed or continue to refuse and probably ruin his career?

No shootouts, no beatings, no chases.  A story that takes its time, and the offense that's investigated is very low-level.  But if you give it a chance and have patience, Police, Adjective gets to you and makes you think about a lot of things.  It is definitely the first movie I've ever seen that employs a dictionary, and indeed hinges on a dictionary, at its climax.  A movie involving crime, investigation, and what words mean and imply -- I would think that's a movie that many writers, and especially crime writers, might very well like.

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