Grade: B+

One had better not be in too much of a hurry when watching “Police, Adjective”—the new film by Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu (“12:08 East of Bucharest”). But if you’re willing to give it room to breathe, you’ll find it unfolds at a pace that’s not just slow but spellbinding.

On the surface the film is a police procedural in which a dogged detective named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) shadows a teen named Victor (Radu Costin), who’s been fingered by a pal, Alex (Alexandru Sabadac), for dealing drugs. This—by far the longest—section proceeds at a very deliberate pace as the camera adopts a rigorously naturalistic approach, observing the policeman—a serious man, unlike his lazily accommodating colleague Nelu (Ion Stoica)—grimly following the boy from school to his house and back again, taking care not only to watch him, the snitch and a girlfriend as they smoke in the campus lot but to pick up the butts to see if they’re regulars or reefers. And the camera slowly pans across the reports he laboriously writes out, by hand, for perusal by his superiors.

Those reports provide an instance of how the film mutates from a simple procedural into the realm of the use and misuse of language. Cristi’s wife points out that he’s misspelled a word in them—writing as two separate words a combination that the state academy has decided should be written as one. The couple also have a prolonged argument over the lyrics of a pop song the woman is listening to, in which words are used metaphorically or symbolically; and the discussion shows that Cristi wants terms to be cut-and-tried in good official style, not fuzzily unclear.

Those apparently abstruse linguistic concerns are connected with the police investigation in the picture’s final act, when Cristi is summoned by Captain Anghelache (the chilling Vlad Ivanov), a cold, methodical intellectual thug, to explain why he’s taking so long with the investigation and why he hasn’t mounted a sting to catch Victor in the act. Cristi, who’s traveled abroad and knows that mere use of weed is considered a minor infraction elsewhere in Europe (and believes that Romanian law, which imposes prison time for it, will soon change), doesn’t want to ruin the young man’s life, and refuses to entrap him. That leads his boss to lead him through a cruel journey through the dictionary to demonstrate that Cristi’s personal moral scruples are at odds with the letter of the law and have no place in his official capacity.

Of course, the extreme literalism that the captain insists upon is intended to be understood as the dark shadow of the old communist regime that still controls so much of Romanian life. Just as the sequences that follow Victor—and Cristi—through the desolate streets of Bucharest quietly speak volumes about the physical rubble left behind by totalitarianism, the sequence with the smugly dictatorial Anghelache is a powerful commentary on the intellectual stranglehold the old system still has on the citizenry (through, among other institutions, the academy that determines how words themselves are to be used).

It’s a rare film that can successfully negotiate such terrain without becoming heavy-handedly didactic. “Police, Adjective” does so because Porumboiu holds back when most directors would push forward, making a virtue out of his poverty-row budget rather than trying to conceal it. And the ending is a simple, stunningly bold declaration of the hold the old Romania still has on the supposedly new one.

“Police, Adjective” demands a good deal from viewers in the way of attention and concentration. But the returns are substantial.