The best film (to my eyes) of the current wave of Romanian films remains 12:08 East of Bucharest, the first feature by director Corneliu Porumboiu. A political satire at heart, it shares the aesthetic of glacially slow long takes that have defined that country's art-house hits in the last five years with a sense of humor so dry that it's almost a cheat to accuse the situations involved of being "gags". So my expectations for Porumboiu's sophomore effort, Police, Adjective, were terribly high, higher than any film would really be able to match. Which isn't to say that in the end, Police, Adjective isn't a pretty damn great little movie - 'tis - in fact, I don't even know why I started out this way, because even if it's not quite as good as Porumboiu's last, I have hardly a single complaint to lay against it.

It's basically more of the same for anybody who's been following Romanian cinema the last little while (the other films to receive a prominent American release: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days): very little happens, and it happens in a series of tableau-like shots that linger for five or six or ten minutes. That is a hideously reductive way to think about a movie aesthetic, especially one that I happen to love, but it's not really inaccurate. And Police, Adjective ups the ante, so to speak, by having most of those tableaux repeat over and over again in the course of the movie. I'd estimate that a solid third of the movie takes place on the outskirts of a kindergarten, where an undercover cop named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) stands near a construction site watching three teenagers smoking cigarettes laced with illegal drugs. His long-term goal is to use this trio to crack an actual drug-lord, but the higher-ups have gotten antsy with the complete lack of movement in his 8-day investigation, and he's coming under pressure to just go ahead and arrest Victor (Dan Cogalniceanu), who is supplying the dope to the other two. Cristi has pronounced moral objections to sending a kid to prison for what will undoubtedly be several years, especially since he sees the writing on the wall: Romania is one of the last European countries where marijuana use is still illegal, and he expects that to change soon. Certainly, sooner than Victor will be released, if he gets arrested now.

Like many Eastern European artworks before it, Police, Adjective is primarily an absurdist narrative about suffering. The desperately inefficient bureaucracy behind the police force is practically the most important character in the movie after Cristi himself, and most of the time that he's not standing still, watching teenagers smoking, he's wandering in the steel grey halls of the police station, trying and failing to get other people to help him get information, or just writing out his excruciatingly detailed reports on how, precisely, he managed to do nothing whatsoever on that day's stakeout. And it's the same rules that govern this bureaucracy that put Cristi in the impossible situation that he spends most of the film grousing over. There aren't many words that get abused more than Kafkaesque, but after trying and failing to come up with another way to describe the motivating spirit behind Police, Adjective, that's the only thing I can come up with: the film describes a sprawling beast of a system that penalises teenagers largely because everybody is too busy following all the rules to bother going after anyone more significant.

This is not any kind of new approach to life, and it wouldn't be enough to make Police, Adjective stand out much, except that Porumboiu hits upon a very particular angle from which to approach his theme: semiotics. It's right there in the title, which goes from being kind of weirdly interesting to making perfect sense very late in the movie; I won't give away the specifics of that revelation. Suffice it to say that the overarching concept driving the film is that society is so obsessed with rules and meanings that it loses sight of why those rules and meanings exist. That is, society does not exist to uphold definitions, but definitions exist to hold up society, and the moment that definitions become more important than people is when it becomes a simple matter of law and not ethics that a teenager should be imprisoned for a minor, youthful indiscretion.

The film is anchored in its middle and near the end by two big show-stopper scenes that more or less encapsulate all of its themes. In the first, Cristi comes home late while his wife Anca (Irina Saulescu) listens to a wholly banal love song on YouTube, over and over and over; we watch him eating dinner in real time, and then he walks into the living room (the camera panning to follow, and if a camera movement can be laugh out loud funny, this one is) to have a conversation that quickly turns into a heated argument over what the hell the lyrics mean. Anca clearly hasn't thought much about this - and why would she, the imagery in the song is idiotically simple - but Cristi grows increasingly irate at the metaphors in the song, which only barely make sense the more you parse them, and which don't really have anything to do with any real world experience of love, at any rate.

The second scene comes when, after days of putting it off, Cristi is obliged to come face to face with his boss. A monumentally long scene that dominates Police, Adjective, this sequence of just four (I think) shots is where the absurdity of the film finally steps into flat-out tragedy. Cristi begins by saying that he cannot arrest the boy, because it would be against his conscience, and this leads to an epic deconstruction of language that turns the very concept of morality into a linguistic game, and no matter how hard Cristi tries to keep control of the conversation, it grows increasingly hard for him to hang onto the idea that, in fact, what we mean is more important than how we say it.

If the film sounds didactic, then I apologise, for it's really nothing of the sort. And if it sound unpleasantly moralistic, then I apologise even more. Mostly, it's a commentary on human idiocy that frequently hits notes as a hilarious as anything in any farce, although it doubtlessly takes a coal-black soul like mine to laugh as hard as I did at parts of Police, Adjective, and never more than when it reaches its most bleakly existential.

And worst of all, is if I've made it sound boring. Porumboiu is an invaluable director, because he has the remarkable skill of arranging lengthy static shots in just such a way that they are constantly fascinating to watch; his actors are choreographed with the greatest precision that the maximum amount of joyless humor is wrung from every beat (Bucur - who also had a small part in Mr. Lazarescu - is just as invaluable; very little of the film would be funny if not for his impeccable reactions to the impossible world surrounding him). Certainly, this is not going to be a movie for everybody - especially not people who like things to happen in their movies, even if just occasionally - but if you're in a bitter intellectual mood, I can't imagine anything more fun than watching a policeman have a staring contest with a dictionary, daring it to take away his soul.