One of the breakout titles from this year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it won two big awards), and a cause célèbre at the New York Film Festival, as well, Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective challenges your own reaction to it as it unspools. Starting off as a very dry, matter-of-fact police procedural, with lengthy, quiet, static scenes depicting its cop protagonist as he follows some kids under suspicion of doing drugs, Porumboiu’s film pulls the rug out from under the viewer’s feet in the final act. In a lengthy, funny, and in-its-own-way horrifying scene, our hero attempts to convince his superior that the kids aren’t worth arresting, only to find himself forced to define the words “law,” “conscience,” “moral,” and “police.” As a result, Police, Adjective reveals itself to have been a canny morality tale all along. Director Porumboiu (whose previous film 12:08 East of Bucharest was also a Cannes hit) sat down with us during a recent visit to New York.
At a recent Q&A, a woman criticized you for showing what she called “the bad side” of Romania. How do you respond to those questions?
This question I have at almost every screening. They are upset because I show average neighborhoods in average towns. Because my characters are average people. At first, I was very nervous when people asked me that, but now I’ve stopped caring. I shoot in real places. Yes, I choose my locations, but I don’t try to make them bad. It’s a world that defines me and defines the story. I try to be polite, but at the same time, this is it. A lot of my compatriots have this idea about image and about how they are perceived. I do not have this problem.
Much of the humor in both Police, Adjective and your previous film, 12:08 East of Bucharest, comes from your depiction of characters who are very precise, almost to a fault. Would you classify yourself as a precise kind of person?
I am very precise. When you are creating characters like that, of course you always have to put something of yourself in them. But when you are very precise, you can also find yourself confused by things that have different meanings. So, eventually, the movie becomes a debate about the meanings of words like “police” and “conscience.”
The notion of conscience in particular becomes an important point in the film. How would you define conscience? Is it religious, or something else?
Can someone have a conscience without religion? That is a big question. I don’t know if I see it in Romania. I’m not a practicing religious person, but I do think we need something. In more advanced societies in the West, where there’s more of a sense of identity, people have other ways of developing a conscience. But Romania is mainly Orthodox, and we didn’t have a Martin Luther or a Reformation, so this idea is enforced by religion most of the time. Communism, too, functioned in a very simple and absolute way.
At the end, our hero speaks out against arresting the kids he’s been tailing, but shouldn’t the "right thing to do" have been to not do the investigation in the first place? He’s already built the case.
This is a film about procedures. The machine is working. His first step of not obeying is when he starts to follow the other kid, hoping this guy takes drugs from someone else. So he’s already starting to do things his own way. But he’s the kind of person who respects the law. He could cheat, but he doesn’t: He could write down something false in his report. But he’s also avoided the morning meetings, where the case is supposed to be discussed. So he’s already trying to find a way around while still respecting the law, and we wonder if this is even possible. But on the other hand, he is also a hunter: I think he enjoys following these kids.