THE WHISTLERS (Corneliu Porumboiu). 97 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (March 13). See listing. Rating: NNNN
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu’s droll take on the neo-noir thriller, is the most conventional picture yet from the filmmaker who gave us 12:08 East Of Bucharest and Police, Adjective – though that’s by no means a complaint. The genre just offers the writer/director a new, more stylish avenue to explore the questions of loyalty, greed and state surveillance that run through all his films.
If you’re unfamiliar with his work, a crash course would not be the worst idea: a key figure in the New Romanian Cinema wave, his films are built on specificity – in language, in morality, in emotions. Police, Adjective built thrilling drama out of the notion of parsing every word in an arrest warrant to see whether it was possible to render a criminal act abstract by redefining criminality – and watching as its well-meaning hero, a Bucharest cop named Cristi, came up hard against the limits of his own authority.
The protagonist of The Whistlers is also a Romanian cop named Cristi, though that may simply be a coincidence; this Cristi is played by a different actor (Vlad Ivanov), and he’s nowhere near as upstanding as his antecedent. He’s pretty dirty, actually, which makes him the ideal anti-hero for a classic noir premise.
Cristi has come to the Canary Islands at the behest of the mysterious Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), with whom he has a history. (There’s always a history.) She is there to initiate him into the intricacies of El Siblo, a complex whistling language employed by the mobsters back home to frustrate surveillance efforts. If he gets it right, he’ll be able to crack their code and bring the whole network down… or maybe he’ll use El Siblo for his own purposes. He’s hard to read that way.
Cristi’s interest in linguistics – and, perhaps, in Gilda – are just the first pieces of Porumboiu’s knotty plot, which expands to involve a few other key characters, most prominently Gilda’s understandably suspicious boyfriend (Sabin Tambrea). There is also a heist, though describing it that way makes it sound a lot more elaborate and dangerous than it really is. Like most neo-noirs, the suspense comes from wondering what people are going to do, rather than watching them do it, and The Whistlers isn’t really a heist picture, anyway.
As Cristi’s mission plays out, Porumboiu’s own intentions become clear: he’s using the structure of a neo-noir narrative to steer us through an especially prickly character study, with elegant flashbacks and a visual sensibility unlike anything he’s previously attempted.
The New Romanian Cinema was distinguished by its lack of cinematographic flair, but Porumboiu and director of photography Tudor Mircea positively revel in the brighter, sunnier possibilities of their North African locations, particularly as compared to the way they depict things back home in Romania.
I know this sounds like a lot, but for all its complications The Whistlers feels positively breezy, hiding a streak of absurdist comedy beneath all the calculation and betrayal.