Traffic Department (Drogowka): Edinburgh Review

Traffic Department - H 2013

Traffic Department - H 2013

Poland's superbly frenetic tale of dirty cops has deservedly cleaned up at domestic box offices.

Bartlomiej Topa leads an ensemble cast in Wojtek Smarzowski's cop drama, a box office sensation in its native Poland.

Poland's Wojtek Smarzowski nails down his position in the front rank of Europe's writer-directors with his fourth feature, domestic box-office smash Traffic Department (Drogowka). Don't be fooled by the bland title: this breakneck-fast plunge into a rancidly corrupt Warsaw police-division is strong meat indeed, its violently savage cynicism expertly marbled with a streak of ribald black humor.

Still 2013's highest-grossing at home, it dominated the charts for the whole of February and was still in the top 20 three months later, racking up over $6 million -- easily trumping prominent Hollywood imports Iron Man 3 ($4 million) and The Croods ($3.5 million). Commercial Polish fare has been doing pretty well via targeted niche release in territories such as the U.K. over the past year or two, and with suitable handling this remake-friendly property could easily follow suit.

Festival bookings should meanwhile be plentiful in the wake of Edinburgh's international premiere, and discerning audiences will likely be keen to catch up with Smarzowski's previous big-screen outings The Wedding (2004), The Dark House (2009) and Rose (2011).

Previously billed under his full name Wojciech, here's here credited via the chummy diminutive "Wojtek," in keeping with a movie which evokes interpersonal workplace dynamics in a no-nonsense style that verges on the brusque. The professional environment in question is the highway-patrol division of Warsaw's city police, where duties chiefly involve chasing down miscreant motorists and levying fines on speeding drivers. These levies may or may not be exacted according to official regulations, as Smarzowski convincingly presents a culture utterly dominated by bribery, personal favors and the turning of blind eyes. 

There are no entirely unrotten apples in this particular barrel, it seems - racism and lechery are taken for granted -- and TV news broadcasts make it clear just how endemic corruption has become. Main protagonist Krol (Bartlomiej Topa) may not be particularly "dirty" in terms of financial dealings, but he thinks nothing of cheating on his wife Ewa (Izabela Kuna) with attractive colleague Madecka (Julia Kijowska). And he even succumbs to hypocritical rage when he discovers Ewa is conducting an affair of his own, with his moneylending colleague Lisowski (Marcin Dorocinski).

When Lisowski's body is fished out of the river, the alibi-less Krol is arrested as chief suspect. Going on the run, his attempts to clear his name lead him to uncover criminal behavior and conspiracies of vast, international proportions ...

There's easily enough material here for a sprawling Wire-style television series, but Smarzowski audaciously compresses the narrative into one breathless two-hour block with virtuoso assistance from his long-time editor Pawel Laskowski. The frenetically lean-trimming is a little disorienting at first, but Smarzowski modulates with a steadily sure hand as the story gradually takes shape and the wrong-man strand assumes increasing prominence.

He isn't exactly reinventing the wheel here, and many of the narrative elements will be familiar to viewers of American and European policiers from recent decades. But Traffic Department proceeds with such uncompromising brio that potentially cliched material comes across as fresh and engaging. The ensemble cast, mostly drawn from the top drawer of Poland's big-screen acting talent, is rock-solid, and the unflattering picture painted of wider Polish society and its failings is never  less than horribly believable.

Venue:  Edinburgh Film Festival (Directors' Showcase)
Production company:  Film it
Cast:  Bartlomiej Topa, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Julia Kijowska, Marcin Dorocinski, Eryk Lubos, Robert Wabich
Director/Screenwriter:  Wojtek Smarzowski
Producers:  Dariusz Pietrykowski, Andrzej Polec
Director of photography:  Piotr Sobocinski Jr
Production designer:  Joanna Macha
Costume designer:  Katarzyna Lewinska
Editor:  Pawel Lasowski
Music:  Mikolaj Trzaska
Sales: Film it, Warsaw
No MPAA rating, 117 minutes