The catchphrase “police procedural” describes fiction that focuses on the painstaking work detectives do to solve crimes. The description originally applied to stories depicting the gritty or even tedious side of a very difficult line of work — noir with an unromantic but compelling streak of realism. But recently police procedurals have taken on a lot of flash and glamour with the tremendous popularity of shows like CSI and Law and Order SVU. In an age of constant crime reportage, we’re inclined to make heroes of the fictional cops who fashion sense out of chaos. I think there’s something darker at work too: perhaps as we fetishize the processes and technology used to solve crimes, we fetishize the crimes themselves.

The new Romanian film Police, Adjective thumbs its nose at all of this, pointedly, if not gleefully, draining all the romance from the most played-out genre of our time. It takes the concept of “police procedural” to its logical conclusion, showing police work at its most mundane, bureaucratic, and demoralizing. But as crafted by writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu with deliberate pacing and a bone-dry Romanian wit, it’s nimble and clever and even entertaining, while making subtle commentary on life after Ceausescu’s police state.

Dragos Bucur plays Cristi, a young cop with a boring, thankless job. He’s tasked with tailing a group of teenagers to determine which one of them is supplying hash to the others. This mostly involves standing around for hours in the cold, waiting for the kids to come and go, watching them smoke in a schoolyard. The way it’s presented here there’s nothing voyeuristic or even very suspenseful about this stuff. We never even see a closeup of the suspects. It’s just one long, quietly atmospheric take after another of Cristi watching, chainsmoking, going to get tea to break the tedium. The city setting is drab, little else but brick and grey concrete; there never seems to be any sunlight. After his long days, Bucur retires to various shabby, flourescent offices to fill out endless paperwork. It’s a dull, sometimes dysfunctional environment left over from the repressive 1970s and 80s.

It’s not long before it’s clear Cristi doesn’t have much stomach for his duty: he complains about the prospect of locking up a kid over petty drug charges, and spends much of the film trying to prove to his superiors there’s no case so he doesn’t have to feel bad about ruining a young life. But the system gives him little choice but to continue gathering evidence to incriminate. And Cristi is no heroic lone wolf from some other cop movie; he’s a blue-collar worker in the service of functionaries. He’s not unintelligent, but perhaps a bit hapless, and has a tendency to get pushed around by his colleagues and lose arguments.

What the film lacks in warmth and excitement, it makes up in cheek. The plot of Police, Adjective is essentially just a framework for a series of acerbic dialogues, low-key but often hilarious banter about minor details. The Eastern European fondness for cynical barbs and aphorisms really gleams on display here. In this wordplay there is a particular focus on the meaning of the words themselves. Time and again, Cristi finds himself in discussions and disagreements about the exact definitions of words and concepts — whether it’s the legalisms that bind his actions or the banal lyrics to a song his wife likes.

As the film slouches toward its inevitably implosive conclusion, it’s obvious that Porumboiu as a writer is far more interested in semantics than politics or police work. The “climactic” scene, a confrontation between Cristi and his chief (Vlad Ivanov) is one long, slow-burning exercise in dialectics. There are no good guys or bad guys, no violence; this place is not even exciting enough to be Kafkaesque.

Police, Adjective is very watchable and enjoyable given how hard it works to portray tedium and bureaucracy. The cinematography is excellent — its cool, overcast tones and eye for detail fixing a melancholy sense of place in this urban backwater. Bucur portrays Cristi as a flawed but very likeable guy. He never smiles — no one does in this film — but not far beneath his mask of sarcasm and ennui he’s quite human, vaguely yearning for a slightly more free and just system (dimly represented by his honeymoon in Prague). There are several scenes in which we simply watch as he eats lunch, or sits at a desk and reads, and Bucur’s odd charisma makes it happen.

Porumboui’s directorial hand is very assured here; I imagine the occasionally uneven tone is intended. But I found the consistently sharp wordplay to be the strongest thing about the film, and could have done with far more of it in proportion to the long stretches without dialogue. Porumboui’s calculated deconstruction of the crime genre at times succeeds in deconstructing his own creation; occasionally there’s a dissatisfying sense that the whole thing’s a pisstake. But overall Police, Adjective is a uniquely dry and droll slice of boring life.

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