Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Corneliu Porumboiu's direct approach to filmmaking

The auteur behind '12:08 East of Bucharest' is back with 'Police, Adjective,' an action movie that leaves out the stylized action of the genre in search of something deeper and more real.

By Saul Austerlitz
December 22, 2009


The title of Romanian director's Corneliu Porumboiu's new film, which has been receiving enthusiastic tributes at film festivals across the world, is indicative of its conflicted -- one might even say confused -- loyalties. "Police" immediately conveys memories of an entire flotilla of detective films and cop thrillers. But "Adjective"? What is a jarring word like "adjective" doing in a film title?

There is, as it turns out, a very precise adjective Porumboiu, director of the acclaimed "12:08 East of Bucharest," has in mind, and it is "intermediate." "Police, Adjective," which opens in L.A. theaters on Wednesday and is Romania's entry for the foreign-language Oscar, is a movie more interested in the spaces in between than the final destination. Its protagonist, police officer Cristi (Dragos Bucur), is on the trail of teenage marijuana smokers, and he is conflicted about enforcing the law in a country where drug possession can mean a multiple-year stretch in prison.

"It's a genre movie," says Porumboiu, speaking by telephone, with the occasional assistance of an interpreter. "Policiers are always cutting on action. Here, being interested, in a certain way, in the absurdity of being, I was thinking that all these intermediary periods in a procedural are more important in showing what I want to show." In essence, Porumboiu's movie is like a policier with all the action sequences cut out -- a concept that makes the director chuckle.

"Intermediate" is also an appropriate descriptor for the new wave of Romanian filmmakers, which, in addition to the 34-year-old Porumboiu, includes Cristi Puiu ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu") and Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), whose new film "Tales From the Golden Age" comes out next year. Caught between memories of the communist past and dreams of a prosperous future, their films are uniquely capable of bridging the gap between grubby realism and the high polish of European art cinema.

Of the group of Romanian filmmakers, Porumboiu -- whose "12:08 East of Bucharest" was about the residents of a small town squabbling over who, exactly, took part in a 1989 protest against the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu -- is the most playful, his films' sordid squalor tempered by a poker-faced absurdity.

'Direct cinema'

"In '12:08' I was really interested in how we fictionalize history in order to survive," notes the director. "In this one, I was interested in . . . this mechanism of words and what they are meaning." Both of Porumboiu's films, in the end, are about the inability to agree.

Porumboiu, a fan of the Italian neorealists, and Polish directors Andrzej Wajda ("Ashes and Diamonds") and Krzysztof Kieslowski ("The Decalogue"), sees his work, and that of his Romanian colleagues, as sharing similar objectives, and a similar outlook. "We make movies about the world, and people that we know. We make movies about Romania today. We [all] like this kind of very direct cinema."

"Direct cinema" adeptly sums up the work of Porumboiu, Puiu and Mungiu, all of whom share a preference for plunging audiences into the deep ends of their films. They are more miserabilists than tragedians, their concern less with the mournful result than the harrowing journey. We know fairly well what is likely to happen in "Police, Adjective," much as we did with "Lazarescu" and "4 Months," but the sensation of being trapped, unable to escape the cruel coil of fate, can be excruciating.

As befits an enthusiast of the French New Wave, Porumboiu's film embraces a Jacques Rivette-esque sense of duration, inspired by the director of "Celine and Julie Go Boating" and the 12 1/2 -hour torture-chamber opus "Out 1." "Police, Adjective" makes crafty use of boredom, accumulating empty scenes and narrative dead zones -- the kind of moments that any self-respecting mainstream thriller would confidently elide -- secure in the knowledge that all of these blank spots, lumped together like a snowball, will coalesce into a haunting sensation of wasted motion and unavoidable tragedy. It is a film of interstitial spaces -- hallways, construction zones, alleyways, busted-up streets -- which collectively lend a sense of not belonging where we are.

The film, in fact, was originally called "Intermediary," with Porumboiu changing the title only after completing the editing. The director compares the film to a labyrinth, whose confined spaces and hairpin turns contribute to a sensation of spatial and intellectual disorientation. "Police, Adjective" is ultimately an anti-thriller, one whose loose ends grow ever looser as the film progresses.

"The logical scheme is in fact illogical," Porumboiu observes of his protagonist's plans. "It's apparently put in order something which is, in fact, absurd." Ultimately, even the definition of words become subject to interpretation. This is a suspense film whose most dramatic moment turns on two men reading dictionary entries to each other.

On the beat

In "Police, Adjective," Cristi has a dispiriting run-in with a superior, who shares his plans for giving their grubby hometown a makeover. Cristi's bossmay want to turn Vaslui (Porumboiu's place of birth) into Little Prague but he still intends to lock up adolescents for smoking pot. It is this tension -- between the old Europe and the new, between the totalitarian, police-state past and an unimaginable Westernized future -- that animates Porumboiu's films, and those of his fellow Romanian directors. "Romania is a marginal culture which all the time dreams and takes [its] models from outside," observes Porumboiu.

Cristi is a bit of a stalker himself, lurking in the shadows where children play, sniffing his prey's cigarette butts and bagging them for later inspection. Well-trained by our obsessive pursuit of the pursuers, we become like detectives ourselves, investigating the film for clues to the significance of what we are seeing. The facts of the case never become entirely clear, but placing "Police, Adjective" alongside its recent predecessors, it is abundantly obvious that the Romanian film is in full bloom.

"These movies," offers Porumboiu by way of explanation, "they speak about something universal. In terms of language, or small things, maybe there are difference . . . but the spirit of the movie, it's the same."

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