The Whistlers Review

When even fans of contemporary Romanian cinema describe the films that achieved global appreciation from a wide swath of cineastes, “funny”, “action packed”, and “plot heavy” are not usual talking points. It’s a country that for decades has generated films that are precisely constructed by often being narratively spare, reveling in character beats and the ennui of boredom in works that stretch hours and hours. This “new wave” was embraced by the same fickle arthouse crowd that now just might find themselves thrilled by Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers, a movie that dares to pander to audiences with such proletarian incorporations like a conventional story line, echoes to Hitchcock and other trappings of genre cinema.

In another era, The Whistlers could have been a film by Guy Ritchie, and that’s meant as a compliment. Porumboiu hasn’t exactly gone full Michael Bay here – there’s still plenty for people who adore the stillness of the cinema from this region to embrace. But what the injection of genre tropes does is allow the film to hang on a coherent framework that draws the audience in instead of trying its patience, allowing the artistic elements to be incorporated rather than stilted and alone between a mass of interminable conversation.

The story is broken into specific chapters that name the participants. It’s the tale of a corrupt cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) who arrives on Gomera, part of the Canary Islands chain, in order to make a deal with a crime lord. In order to subvert surveillance, he’s taught a language that involves hooking ones fingers, placing it gun-like into one’s mouth, and then whistling various sounds that represent groups of consonants and vowels.

In flashback we learn of his connection to Gilda (Catrinel Marlon in gloriously femme fatale mode), and the two are tasked to help break Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) out of custody to reclaim millions of Euros that have been taken from the boss Paco (Agusti Villaronga). The chapters dance back and forth in time, providing more and more context to the characters and incorporating people like Cristi’s mother (Julieta Szonyi) into the fray.

The end result is a wild celebration of police state tactics undercut by this preposterous plot hook. The whistling is risible, of course, but it’s done with such intensity and seriousness that it elevates its farcical nature. The obvious remake – The Yodellers – might overplay this hand, but somehow shoving ones fist in mouth and blowing works perfectly within the context of a straight up thriller.

What’s self-evident is that Porumboiu and his collaborators are free to have fun with the material. There isn’t a smirk to be seen, and this isn’t any broad farce. Instead, the heightened environment of the crime drama gives space for us to care about these characters even as they’re acting absurd.

There are allusions to the stifling bureaucracy, inherent corruption and general incompetence of criminal and cop alike that feel more like David Simon’s The Wire than anything, providing a droll, nihilistic view of this world while still finding time for levity. It’s this balance that truly injects the film with something often sorely lacking in these dour pieces, and it makes the more formal aspects all the more thrilling.

This is as close to a multiplex contender as Porumboiu is likely to get, which may of course aggravate those that like their drinks sour, their bread hard and crusty, and their films to be as esoteric as possible. For those that don’t mind a bit of fun along the way this quirky, surreal crime thriller just might work its way into your heart.

With all these disparate elements coalescing into a strange, often wonderful film, there’s much to be admired. By any measure this kind of mashup of arthouse fetish, sordid crime thriller, Psycho referential silliness and comical form of communication should blow. Yet, however implausibly, this film purses its lips just right, allowing The Whistlers to sing.  

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.