Spotlight | Corneliu Porumboiu

By Mark Peranson

Cinema Scope: What did you learn between making 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective? The two do seem related to each other: How did the first lead to the second?

Corneliu Porumboiu: I believe that Police, Adjective is related to 12:08 in that both stem from my obsession for words, how they can be interpreted and imply different points of view. If 12:08 is a collage of definitions of the word “revolution,” in Police, Adjective I went through a process of trying to define the word “conscience.”

Scope: Are the events in the film based on a true story?

Porumboiu: There were two facts that inspired me. I read in a newspaper the story of a guy who was arrested for dealing hashish after his brother reported him to the police. I also had a discussion with a friend who is a policeman who told me about a case he didn’t want to solve because he was afraid about having qualms of conscience afterwards. From these two stories I started writing the screenplay.

Scope: Did you do research on police work once you decided to make a film on the subject? So few films focus on the daily routine of work, especially work that seems so tedious…

Porumboiu: I did very precise research. I tried to follow through every step in a case like this one, starting with the report and finishing with the trial. Everything in the bureaucracy of today’s Romania takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. I believe that these kinds of deliberate proceedings end by changing the personality of the person who does them. When making the film, we also had an adviser from the police force on how to follow a suspect. He came to Cannes, and after the screening he told me he liked the film, but thought that the first part, where we see Cristi doing his job, was too long and boring!

Scope: So why did you choose this structure, to make us watch the policeman staking out the kids for so long? It is shot in a way that forces us to remain distant, as if you didn’t feel the need for viewers to empathize with him, but feel the repetition and boring parts of police work. Was part of the reason to allow viewers to be more conscious of time?

Porumboiu: A policier is like a puzzle. As a viewer you form your own opinion about the case as you’re watching it unfold, and you try to see if your solution is the “real” one. In the first draft of my script I wanted to do the same thing, but after the research I realized that the truth of my character lies in the small things, in his daily routine and in a certain time of being and reacting. I think that this is what cinema makes fresh, a time of being. Often the cinema remains merely informational or narrative, or tries to stun or use a cliché in order to impress the viewer. I prefer the camera to be neutral, to keep the viewer away from the character, and through the way the policeman investigates the case, viewers can somehow see the absurdity of the situation and the absurd aspects present in the character’s personal life. Everything in the movie, especially the long scenes, highlights the absurdity of the ultimate dialogue scene between Cristi and his boss.

Scope: Was there pressure to get to the final scene earlier? Or to cut the film to make it a little more accessible for audiences? How much does the need to sell the film concern you as a filmmaker? Or a producer, for that matter, because you also produce your own films.

Porumboiu: I write my own scripts and then I direct them. This way of making a film pushes you towards autism. After I’m done, I feel the need to show my work to some of my close friends in order to make sure that maybe someone else understands what I wanted to do. After I finished Police, Adjective, a lot of people told me that the film could be cut, and at some point I even made an edit that was five or six minutes shorter. But when I saw that version a second time, I got angry, because it seemed like the film had lost its rhythm. I think that when you make cinema it’s just like when you make music, and if you have established a certain key then you have to respect it all the way through until the end. Or maybe after all I am autistic.

Scope: Some of the issues subtly discussed in the film include grand ideas such as what is truth, the interpretation of facts, the meaning of words, and, of course, what it means to have a conscience. For you, is this still a way of dealing with the lasting effects of the dictatorship? And the subtle ways that you handle these issues, how much of that traces back to the need to mute forms of criticism in that time?

Porumboiu: I’m very interested in the relationship between the individual and the state. This is a theme that’s preoccupied me since the early shorts I made in film school. Today, Romania is not a dictatorship, it’s a kind of a post-communist society without liberal values: it’s like you left a place and you don’t know where you’re going. I realize now that I find it very hard to define Romania nowadays.

Scope: How did you write the screenplay? What changed from draft to draft? And how did the dictionary enter the picture?

Porumboiu: The script went through three drafts. The first one was very different: it was a puzzle, actually, in which I also included a story of a director who was doing research for a film. The second one is very close to the one that I filmed, except for the scene with the dictionary. And the third one is the one as it was filmed. When I’m filming I rehearse a lot, but I change very little dialogue; I think that in this case I changed the conversations about the hours when Cristi goes into his office and talks with his partner. About the dictionary, I introduced it into the script when I asked several friends to write a personal definition of the word “conscience” for me, and I discovered that their definitions were very different: there was no link between them!

Scope: Regarding language, how worried were you about accurate subtitles, due to the precision of the dialogue, and the emphasis on definitions? This is an issue that is rarely discussed in cinema, and as I don’t speak Romanian I can’t attest to the accuracy of the translation, but I can tell you that in English it seems to work perfectly.

Porumboiu: When I made the film I hadn’t taken into consideration the translation and I had a lot of problems when I tried it myself. I couldn’t translate some of the dialogue into English but I was lucky to have a good translator, Philip O Ceallaigh, an Irish writer who lives here in Romania.

Scope: Can you talk a bit about how your two films both relate to the place where they were shot, your hometown of Vaslui?

Porumboiu: Vaslui is a small town in the east of Romania. I grew up there and my family lives there. It’s a world that I know very well and that I’m interested in depicting. Because I grew up there, for me Vaslui is unique, even if it doesn’t seem that way in the films. I know every street, and every building. When I write I keep in mind a lot of places from there.

Scope: You’ve mentioned the influence of Bresson and Antonioni—can you elaborate a bit more on that? Are there any other filmic influences on your work? How does Bresson’s influence relate to your desire to make what you call a “post-crime genre” film?

Porumboiu: Pickpocket is one of my favourite films. I’ve always been fascinated by the body language of the characters, as well as by the production design. I believe that the cinema shouldn’t only offer information; it can create a world through time and movement. As for my film, I thought that the way in which my character goes about his job and his daily life could reveal much more about him and the world he lives in than 50 pages of dialogue. When I was making the film I thought a lot about genre. For example, a policier is mounted on action, on things that count, while my film is made up of a lot of dead time, of expectations that are being built up for the viewer. A lot of policier films teach you a lesson in the end, how the good defeats the bad. In my film, what’s good is unclear. Any way, everyone has his own personal vision.

Scope: The most important and interesting Romanian films of recent years mix humour with serious subjects. Can you account for the reason for this? Is this a kind of filmmaking that can be traced back historically to earlier Romanian films that aren’t so well known in the west?

Porumboiu: I think we have an important literary tradition in the areas of humour and the absurd. But yes, it can also be found in the films made by some of the greatest Romanian directors like Lucian Pintilie, Alexandru Tatos, or Mircea Danieliuc.

Scope: Not to generalize again, but another thing which stands out among recent Romanian films is the quality of the acting, which is uniformly excellent. Are you all just such great directors of actors, is there an excellent acting school in Bucharest, or what? Can you talk about your actors and why you cast them?

Porumboiu: Of course we have great actors, but one of the most important things is that the themes are personal and every director knows very well what he wants and what typology he is looking for. The rest is technique. I wrote the second version of the script knowing that Dragos Bucur was going to be the main character. Then I made a two-month long casting process during which the other actors auditioned alongside Dragos. I cast the film around him and according to him.

Scope: The film seems to circle around the entry of Romania into the EU without mentioning it, with Cristi’s repeated logic being that the laws aren’t just, and they’ll change in two years, etc. For you, what does the film tell us about the Romania of the present, and of the future?

Porumboiu: My generation is an inadequate one as it had absolute idealism and saw it collapse. Even after the Revolution it became more and more cynical or adapted itself to the prevailing cynicism. It seems to me that the transition Romania is passing through today is never going to end, or it is going to end too late when I won’t need it anymore. Every film I’ve made so far has been made in the shadow of this despair. I hope that I’m wrong.

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