“Police, Adjective” is one of the year’s most striking films, the type that will be embraced by some and derided by others for its bone dry humor, its solemnly long takes (including scrolling down hand-written police reports) and the fact that its climax pivots on the dictionary definition of “conscience.” It is, in some ways, an extension of Corneliu Porumboiu’s first film, “12:08 East of Bucharest,” which dazzled as much with its debate over the hazy recollections of the Romanian Revolution as with its startling final image of snow falling over the city of Vaslui. “Adjective” is similarly wintry, following the daily grind of a policeman (Dragos Bucur) assigned to follow a student suspected of dealing marijuana to his friends and arriving at a conclusion that leads his boss to pull out the Merriam-Webster’s to convince him otherwise. While at the Toronto Film Festival, Porumboiu took some time to talk about the film’s origins, its mixed reception (including two prizes from this year’s Cannes) and why he needs to start playing sports again. [Spoilers ahead.]
How did “Police, Adjective” come about?
After “12:08,” I started four different stories, but at the end, a friend of mine, a policeman, told me a story, a small case of conscience. And he told me he had a case like [the one in the film], and he didn’t want to solve it. I was touched by a story like that because usually you see the movie and it’s very big cases and all the time, it is possible that policemen can save the world. I [also] heard another story about a brother who betrayed his brother. So these were the two stories that I started with.
This film suggests that many things are in decay in contemporary Romanian society, but do you feel language in particular has been a catalyst?
No, I think we’re living in a world [where] each [person] has his own individuality, more and more in how we communicate, what are our values. At the same time, there’s a lot of loneliness in my movies; the characters I construct, they are living in a bubble. The starting point [for “Police, Adjective] was how we understand each other, what is the background, what is their representation of the world for each one of us. It’s a world that’s very fragmented and each one has his own truth. For me, it’s a quite absurd if we follow a dictionary because sometimes we can use words to speak to each other and after that, we reuse words and there are so many [words] used, they lose their meaning.
It requires a certain confidence to shoot such long scenes, and it’s been a point of contention among audiences — why did you feel it was necessary for this film?
When I’m making the movie, I don’t think about the audience. I’m interested in finding the spirit of my character. So [in doing research], I saw that the policeman spent so much time waiting and following and at the end, it’s a movie of meanings and sense. It’s real time there, but in my [film], it becomes absurd time – watching, waiting, watching, waiting — that could [demonstrate] a certain psychology that’s unexplainable.
I’ve spoken with a lot of people and [some of them] don’t believe that at the end [the main character is] convinced by his chief [to make the arrest] because his chief gives him the meaning, gives him the sense. A lot of people like to think that he was forced. But I think maybe this kind of audience didn’t enter into the first part of the movie. It’s weird because yeah, the people need the explanation, but for me, it was more important to show character — he’s like a hunter, you see that he’s born for this, he likes what he’s doing, but at the same time, he has this conscience problem and he’s in between and how could he do this.
Much has been made of a Romanian New Wave that includes Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days”) and Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu”), but as a filmmaker, what do you make of that label?
As a director, you choose your own way, you choose your own cinema. Of course, cinema is an art, it’s been around 100 years, so you have a lot of forms, you have a lot of types of cinema. I’m quite strict and I have a point of view of cinema, but at the same time, I’m not feeling that this is the ultimate truth. For me, it’s important to have all these kind of movies. At the same time, I want to find my own voice.
How did you actually get interested in cinema?
First, I was studying management in Bucharest [at the Academy of Economic Studies] and after that, I started to go to the cinematheque and there I discovered Chaplin, Antonioni and after that, Polish cinema and Nouvelle Vague Français and after that, I said I want to do this.
You’re the son of a football referee and I was wondering whether that contributed to your interest in language and rules.
No, I think this obsession is coming more from my mother because she was a Romanian teacher – she’s now retired. And [from] my father, I [played] sports when I was a teenager and this helped in my development. Now, I’m smoking too much and drinking too much coffee, so for me, it was very important I [played] sports when I was a teenager. [laughs] That keeps me alive, even now.
“Police, Adjective” is now open in limited release and available on VOD.