“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are,” observes the playwright protagonist of Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thing. “If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” A similar spirit of linguistic sacrosanctity attends the films of the 34-year-old Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu.
One of the most gifted figures to emerge from his country’s recent bumper crop of new filmmaking talent, Porumboiu made an international splash back in 2006, when his debut feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest, won the Camera d’Or prize for best first film at the Cannes Film Festival. Arguably better served by its Romanian-language title, which literally translates as Was There or Wasn’t There?, Porumboiu’s satirical comedy detailed the production of a fictional public-affairs TV program about the 1989 Romanian Revolution, with three men arguing in increasingly absurd, rhetorical fashion over what role, if any, they and their town (which happened to be Porumboiu’s hometown of Vaslui) played in those historic events.
With his new film, Police, Adjective, Porumboiu returns us to Vaslui for an even more drily comic expedition. Cristi, a policeman, is assigned to stake out a high school student believed of being a small-time dope peddler — a case that requires him to spend hours upon hours stalking the chilly Vaslui streets, eavesdropping on schoolyard conversations, and filing detailed reports that include such observations as “nothing happened for three hours.”
Offering a deadpan antidote to the thrill-a-minute police work of most Hollywood procedurals, Police, Adjective makes occasional detours into Cristi’s domestic life, where he and his wife discuss the metaphoric implications of a romantic pop song’s purple lyrics and the grammatical gender assigned to words by the Romanian language academy. Then Porumboiu arrives at a showstopping finale — a 20-minute verbal tennis match in which the cop appeals to his superior about the futility of his mission, only to find himself embroiled in a dialectical argument about the definition of his job and the true meaning of “conscience.” A Romanian dictionary plays a key supporting role in the scene, and never before in the history of cinema has a book of words cast such a forbidding shadow.
“I think my formation, if you will, was literary,” says the compactly built, chain-smoking Porumboiu as we stroll through Central Park on the morning after Police, Adjective’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. “At that time, you had two hours of television in Romania per day,” he says of his own teenage years, just before the Revolution. “There wasn’t much cinema. So mainly, in the school, there was a literary education. And I read a lot. I think this is obvious, maybe, in my movies. I liked a lot Gogol and Chekhov. After that, Ionesco, Beckett. There are a lot of them.”
The son of an agricultural engineer, Porumboiu studied management at Bucharest’s Academy of Economic Studies but was soon spending less time in class than in the Romanian national cinematheque. “And there I started to think about making movies,” he says.
Among the filmmakers who made a particular impression on the young Porumboiu were Milos Forman, Jirí Menzel and other exponents of the 1960s’ “Czech New Wave” cinema — directors, like Porumboiu and his Romanian contemporaries, who came of age behind the Iron Curtain and sensed that sometimes the best way to cope with a desperate situation is to make light of it.
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For Police, Adjective, Porumboiu was inspired by a news item about a man who informed on his own brother for selling drugs, and by the meanings we ascribe to weighty words like morality and conscience — the literal letters of the law. Above all, he wanted to make a film devoid of obvious heroes, villains and the inciting dramatic conflicts that are the building blocks of most conventional screenplays.
“Cinema is still at this level of characters in exceptional situations,” he says. “Of course, there are directors who are trying to show something else, but the mainstream is like that. Before, you had Vietnam stories and Cold War stories. After ’89, there appeared the aliens. So, I think people always need a threat, something to fight against.”
Porumboiu, however, prefers internal struggles to external ones, such as a young policeman’s efforts to maintain his sense of justice — and of self — in the face of an intransigent bureaucracy. “From the beginning, I was thinking a lot about why someone chooses to become a policeman,” he says. “There is corruption and compromise, but at the same time you see that this type of person needs rules. He needs them in order to survive, if you want. I had a friend once who finished the army, and after one night as a civilian, he started to cry. For him, the army gave him that sense of order.
“Even me, I have this lousy job,” Porumboiu adds with a puff of his last cigarette. “It’s quite depressing to write scripts. You have periods where you are not writing anything. And then you see the others who are going to an office every day, who have a pension when they retire.”