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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Overcast
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Police, Adjective debates 'law' and 'conscience'
Right and wrong
on
Scenes develop slowly, statically.
Scenes develop slowly, statically.

It's rare that a film screens in Madison multiple times before it begins a theatrical run here. In recent months the Romanian film Police, Adjective was presented at the Wisconsin Film Festival and the Romanian Film Festival, and it also showed up in a Memorial Union screening. I mention this by way of saying that there's been a lot of buzz about this film, and about the thriving Romanian film scene that produced it.

It lives up to the anticipation. The story it has to tell is modest, almost trivial, but writer and director Corneliu Porumboiu creates a lot of mystery and ambiguity with a series of slowly developing, almost static scenes.

On the one hand Police, Adjective is an understated crime procedural. But Romania's authoritarian past seems to hang mournfully over the film. Little is said about that past, but at the film's heart is an agonizing discussion of the rule of law, and how, for police agents, it relates to their sense of what's right and wrong. It's a topic that's key to understanding how totalitarianism works, and I'm floored at the sly way Porumboiu works it into his crime movie.

The plot is simple. The young policeman Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is tailing a kid who may be distributing hashish. The kid's friend has informed on him, but the two seem to be romantic rivals, so the informant might not be trustworthy. Cristi's boss wants him to arrest the kid, but Cristi knows the lad would go to prison for a long time. Cristi drags out the investigation and argues that Romanian drug laws are outdated. But the chief is firm.

Bucur is weary and stoic in this role. In many long sequences he only stands and watches. We learn about Cristi's home life in a couple of scenes with his better-educated wife (Irina Saulescu). She listens obsessively to a trite pop song, and then the movie rotates - jarringly, compellingly - into a discussion of the nature of language as husband and wife muse on the lyrics.

In the film's protracted, squirm-inducing climax, Cristi's boss (Vlad Ivanov) has him read dictionary definitions of words like law and conscience, then Socratically queries him. Cristi, who is virtuous but not especially bright, falters. But the debate is premised on dictionary definitions, which seem as squishy in Romania as they do here. The scene reminds me of a private rule I have established: Never trust a piece of writing that begins, "According to Webster's...."

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