(director/writer: Corneliu Porumboiu; cinematographer: Marius Panduru; editor: Roxana Szel; music: Mirabela Dauer/Yan Raiburg; cast: Dragos Bucur (Cristi), Vlad Ivanov (Anghelache), Ion Stoica (Nelu), Irina Saulescu (Anca), Marian Ghenea (Prosecutor), Vlad Ivanov (Angelache, Police Captain), Cosmin Selesi (Costi), Serban Georgevici (Politist), George Remes (Vali), Adina Dulcu (Dana), Dan Cogalniceanu (Vic), Costi Dita (Officer on Duty), Alexandru Sabadac (Alex), Anca Diaconu (Doina), Radu Costin (Victor), Viorel Nebunu (Alex’s Father), Emanoela Tigla (Alex’s Mother), Daniel Birsan (Barman), Mioara Bungeanu (Shopkeeper); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Corneliu Porumboiu; IFC Films; 2009-Romania-in Romanian with English subtitles)

“Has a conscience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu (“A Trip To The City”/”East of Bucharest”) is writer-director of this actionless but winsome cerebral police procedural film, that should be noted for its brilliant dialogue, subtle wit, splendid way it has of catching a bureaucracy in action and that it has a conscience. The story revolves around a dedicated young but already world-weary police detective, Cristi (Dragos Bucur), recently wed to a smart school teacher named Anca (Irina Saulescu).

Cristi goes on surveillance after following a tip from an informer, a teenager named Alex, who is a friend of the fellow he’s turning in. Cristi tails the high school student Victor (Radu Costin) who is suspected of selling hashish, but only sees him smoking with Alex and an unidentified girl in the playground and not dealing. Unable to go along with his police captain’s (Vlad Ivanov) plan to arrest Victor in a sting operation and thereby ruin the so far trouble-free kid’s life with a significant 3 1/2 year jail sentence over smoking a joint, Cristi stalls and tries to investigate who is the supplier to take the heat off the kid. But the boss, after reading Cristi’s detailed investigative report, orders the sting operation as he rejects Cristi’s assertion that Romanian law will soon fall in line with the rest of Europe’s liberal practices toward pot and therefore there’s no point of ruining the life of a kid from a good home for something that will soon no longer be a crime.

It’s set in the crumbling north-eastern city of Vasliu and highlights Romania’s economic and moral stagnation in the post-communist period. The country seems to be mired in a rut and is caught not wanting to look back to its authoritarian past or forward to a possible more Western European type of tolerant democracy. Cristi as the earnest young police detective symbolizes the hopes for a more liberal future, while the police captain symbolizes the need for an authoritarian stability for a country still not sure of its moral compass or what direction it intends to go.

The carefully paced film builds to an extraordinary intense battle over words climax between the pragmatic police captain and the spirited young detective. The thought-provoking intelligent film gives the viewer a sense of what waits around the corner for Romanians, as the ordinary citizen is left pondering the moral dilemmas of the new day. Everything seems to work in this engrossing film, as even the stark visuals allow us to make the same observations as does Cristi when he takes to the streets on his tail assignment. The authority figure, even if presented as benign, nevertheless tries to prevent anyone from acting on their own conscience (intuition or with artistic inspiration) by using his power to make them cave in to a soulless civilized society that will save the individual the trouble to think for himself by letting the state do the thinking.

In one pivotal scene at dinner, Mirabela Dauer’s song “I Don’t Leave You Love” leaves a puzzled Cristi confronting his sensitive wife on the lyrics he doesn’t understand and from hereon the ambiguity of words becomes a focal point throughout and the film’s major talking point.