Interview - Corneliu Porumboiu - In Romania, A Director's Quest For Clarity Between The Lines The Romanian film Police, Adjective won the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes International Film Festival, and is also Romania's entry for a foreign language Oscar this year. The film explores themes of language, morality and criminal justice.

In Romania, A Quest For Clarity Between The Lines

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Does this movie sound appealing to you? The main character spends most of his time either skulking on a sidewalk smoking cigarettes, or questioning the meanings of words. Well, the judges at this year's Cannes International Film Festival thought it was pretty appealing. They gave the movie their Jury Prize. It's from Romania, and it's called "Police, Adjective." It opens this month in some American theaters.

Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio asked the director what it's all about.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: A young detective struggles with whether or not to arrest three students who've been smoking hashish. He believes their lives will be ruined for a minor crime. The title of the movie is written "Police, Adjective," and director Corneliu Porumboiu says the film's a discourse on language and the detective's search for the meaning of such words as conscience, moral and law.

Mr. CORNELIU PORUMBOIU (Director, "Police Adjective"): The movie is built around this concept, and at the end, I arrive to the meanings of the words: what is conscience? Because police have to enforce and to respect the law, which is my words and when I start to think this movie, I had the impression that all the time we speak one with each other, but at the end, each one of us has his own representation.

MOVSHOVITZ: The representation or meaning of each of those words can be determined by whoever speaks them, or they can be taken literally. In a crucial sequence, the young detective's commander, in a soft, patronizing voice, forces him to read dictionary definitions of the words he uses to justify leaving the students alone.

(Soundbite of movie, "Police, Adjective")

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MOVSHOVITZ: Look up conscience, the police chief says and fixes a cold stare while the young detective reads like a child in front of the school principal.

(Soundbite of movie, "Police, Adjective")

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MOVSHOVITZ: It's a grim, humiliating scene, and the weight of the commander's oppressive logic squashes the young cop's spirit. The joyless feeling is matched by the film's images of the small city of Vaslui, where it takes place and where director Corneliu Porumboiu grew up. He says "Police, Adjective" was filmed on gray November days using long takes with a stationary camera. There's no music.

But Porumboiu rejects the idea that his film is a metaphor for the dull lingering chill of the former authoritarian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. He says that it's just about a cop searching for meaning.

Mr. PORUMBOIU: In a way I'm afraid of metaphor or to generalizate, you know? It's this character, and he's in a transition period. He doesn't have values. He hasn't - doesn't have something to grab, you know?

MOVSHOVITZ: As the commander takes away his words, the young cop looks like he's grabbing for a lifeline, drowning in his own silence. His sense of ethics goes unexpressed.

That silence may not be a metaphor, but it does in a way represent the plight of people struggling to escape the legacy of tyranny, says Corina Suteu. She's director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, a government agency that promotes her country's culture in the United States. She recently organized a festival of new Romanian films.

Ms. CORINA SUTEU (Director, Romanian Cultural Institute): The question that this film asks is how much has Romania today - how much do we really get out of long-term legacies of totalitarian thought, of authoritarian way of thinking, of ideologies? How free are we really to get out of it and make also our individual choices inside a society?

And for me this is the film that really points this very, very strongly and also in a very simple, completely non-sophisticated way. Maybe this is why Corneliu hates to speak about it as a metaphor because he's just very - he wants to keep it simple.

MOVSHOVITZ: That style also characterized Corneliu Porumboiu's critically acclaimed first feature "12:08 East of Bucharest."

Corina Suteu says that Porumboiu's unadorned films reveal perplexing and difficult problems: both the commander and the detective want to do their jobs well, but they're trapped by the history of their country.

Ms. SUTEU: A mind that is captive cannot get rid of this captivity. You become, finally, the main guard of this captivity. You become the captive and the one who is the guard to the prison. And this is maybe the most dangerous and awful legacy of totalitarian regimes because you're afraid to get out of this captivity.

MOVSHOVITZ: Suteu says that having to live with dual realities is what the great Romanian Dada artists Tristan Tzara and Eugene Ionesco called absurdity, and that Corneliu Porumboiu has entered this absurdist tradition with his observation that words have become meaningless.

Mr. PORUMBOIU: I think now we are living in a world which we are making the laws. But in the same time, I think that it's more and more difficult to understand each other.

MOVSHOVITZ: His characters don't seem to think we can. Director Corneliu Porumboiu is a little more optimistic.

For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.

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