The Whistlers review: An eccentric neo-noir
Josh Slater-Williams | On 10, May 2020Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Cast: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar
Watch The Whistlers online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play
A slick country-hopping noir riff with bloody shootouts and occasionally lavish locations, The Whistlers would seem to be a rather surprising swerve into mainstream crowd-pleasing territory for writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu, one of the poster boys of the Romanian New Wave. But while some of his earlier features, such as 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, certainly fit the realist and/or minimalist mode of the types of Romanian films that have broken out internationally in the last decade-plus, the pattern of his career has been as eccentric as the onscreen tone and characters of his movies.
For one of the odder one-two filmmaking punches of recent memory, the movie he made directly before The Whistlers was Infinite Football, a documentary about a proposed reinvention of the rules of the beautiful game, which looks like it cost as much to make as one night’s rent at the motel in this film. Unlike Infinite Football’s civil servant, Porumboiu doesn’t seem to be looking to reinvent his chosen subject (noir) with The Whistlers, although it is still full of strangeness in line with his other works. For one thing, there’s its distinct hook for a crime movie, as hinted at in its title for English-speaking territories.
Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) is a Bucharest-based cop under heavy surveillance from his colleagues and department higher-ups. This is due to suspicions about connections with a shady salesman, Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), who is hiding €30 million from both the police and mafia operating out of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. Tasked by those mobsters to break Zsolt out so he can lead them to the loot, Cristi ventures to La Gomera to learn a whistling language used there: El Silbo Gomero.
The language involves emitting a sound not unlike birdsong, making it ideal to communicate across long distances. For Cristi and the mob’s purposes, it’s an inspired means to suppress at least some police detection, as instructions delivered from afar can be mistaken for local feathered wildlife simply making noise. Cristi spends a summer of training slowly endearing himself to the criminals, although his allegiances are never clear-cut, nor are those of Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), Zsolt’s partner and Porumboiu’s version of the femme fatale.
Appropriately, Gilda shares a name with one of noir’s most iconic leading characters, which is just one of several winking references in this metatextual tale of double, triple and quadruple crosses. You could even read the whistling aspect as a nod to Lauren Bacall’s famous chat about the act of whistling in To Have and Have Not (1944), although Cristi and company have to do a lot more than just put their lips together and blow to get the exact sound they need. In the end, the whistling’s importance to the film’s twisty time-jumping narrative is rather small, but it’s entertaining to see a modern tale of criminals deceiving tech-based surveillance through such relatively crude means.