One of the most inventive films of 2009 comes from the courageously-creative talent of writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu.
Any film that hinges on a dictionary prop, go-to-the-blackboard lesson-learning and is presented—at times, purposefully—in an excruciatingly slow pace should be doomed for the cinematic dumpster. Here, all three elements are brilliantly combined, leaving those who last to the credits with much to ponder, including “We only follow the laws we like” mantra from those who are pledged with their enforcement.
Cristi (Dragos Bucur in a wonderful, thinking-everyman portrayal) is a plainclothes cop working up a case against teens using/supplying hashish. Through squealer Alex (Alexandru Sabadac) whose motives leave the detective decidedly uneasy, Victor (Radu Costin) and their platonic girlfriend (Anca Diaconu) are surreptiously trailed in hopes that one of them will lead Cristi to bigger prey. Evidence gathering consists of scooping up discarded weed butts and testing them for the illegal, widely consumed substance.
For much of the production, the camera sits immobile, patiently waiting for anything to happen. As dull as that gets (in terms of movie-making 101: never hold a shot longer than 30 seconds), the technique is ideally at one with what surveillance is all about. Truly, Cristi is waiting as fast as he can.
Not surprisingly, during the extended cat-and mouse sequences, dialogue is as rare as Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It’s largely left to the animals (animated terrier Sasha bounding in and out of a tea shop, flocks of unseen birds chirping gaily) to provide visual and aural relief from the otherwise still life as the chain-smoking investigator builds his file.
To break up the glorious monotony, Porumboiu has his hero interact with jaded colleagues, new wife and—in a climax that must rank with the great courtroom cross-examinations of all time—the boss (Vladimir Ivanov plays the determined captain with pitch-perfect tone and delivery), who is anxious for his subordinate to set up a sting, make the arrests and move on.
In all of these intermezzi, wordplay is at the core: saying what you really mean, adhering to the Romanian Academy’s Manual of Style and defining your beliefs with cold facts rather than warm-and-oh-so-fuzzy opinions.
Cristi’s tragic flaw is his apparent conscience. Following a recent honeymoon to the City of Gold (Prague, version) with his Mirabela Dauer devoted spouse (her incessant playing of “I Won’t Leave You Love” at home fits in neatly with the tedium of her hubby’s days) he knows that the Czech people will be able to smoke pot legally before too long. Arresting students and, inevitably, sending them to prison is morally repulsive to the law enforcer.
Not on his watch does he want to forever ruin young lives, but when his stalling tactics finally run their course, he’s forced to confront his own self-laudable ethics in terms of the current state of reality.
The only real fly in Porumboiu’s ointment is having viewers believe that Cristi’s 8-day stakeout went unnoticed by the swarm of school kids—some of whom served as unwitting camouflage.
Moment du jour comes “zingingly” from the boss when his quick laugh quashes the dictionary’s delineation of “police state.” Subliminal satire doesn’t get much better than that. Guess who wins the day! JWR