Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest is now streaming, with half of the proceeds benefiting the Wisconsin Film Festival, where it was scheduled to screen this year. Info
Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu’s previous films may be austere, formally rigorous, and defined by their stark social realism, but his latest feature, The Whistlers (originally slated for this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival), is a surreal, mind-bending odyssey into the artifice of cinema that’s full of glamour, vibrant colors, narrative twists, and international intrigue. Porumboiu changes his tune with this edgy, imaginative, intricately layered, and subtly absurdist take on the neo-noir crime thriller. Here, the director maintains his distinctive ironic detachment, but The Whistlers reaches a new level of sophistication and skill, while offering an exhilarating array of surprises and furtive touches of black humor.
The labyrinthine plot revolves around Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a corrupt, impassive, disillusioned police inspector in Bucharest, who travels to La Gomera, an idyllic mountainous island in the Canaries, where he reunites with Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a stunning and mysterious femme fatale. Cristi has come here to learn El Silbo, a secret whistled language invented centuries ago by the indigenous people, in order to send and receive birdsong-like coded messages that cannot be detected by police. Not everything is as it seems for Cristi, who simultaneously finds himself in deep water with a crew of ruthless gangsters and under police surveillance. In the film’s press materials, Porumboiu explains how he translated the premise of the whistled language into the cinematic grammar of The Whistlers: “The language El Silbo Gomero allows us to code spoken language, in a similar way to how film codes reality. So I started playing with the codes of very different genres—from the detective film or film noir, to the western or comedy. I wanted to tell a story with characters who lie, who play a double game.”
Unfolding within the context of an ambiguous police investigation, the nonlinear story becomes increasingly complicated and sprawling. Porumboiu seamlessly weaves several extended flashbacks into a narrative packed with operatic betrayals and sudden reversals. A heightened sense of paranoia pervades The Whistlers amid the hidden cameras, role-playing, subterfuge, and machinations. Graphic cards tinted with rainbow colors break up the film into several chapters, with each chapter bearing the name of a character who plays an important part in Cristi’s tragic arc. The somewhat abstract aesthetic accentuates the concept of artifice and the perpetual role-playing of all the characters.
There are also moments when the film playfully exhibits self-awareness of its existence as a film. For instance, in one scene an English-speaking filmmaker interrupts an assembly of gangsters on the island while he scouts shooting locations. A later sequence takes place at the Bucharest Cinematheque during a screening of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). An abandoned Western movie set provides the backdrop for the obligatory climactic shootout.
Throughout The Whistlers, Porumboiu employs conventions of genre cinema while brilliantly subverting them. The soundtrack selections range from Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” to Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna.” À la French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, a variety of unexpected tunes starting and stopping contribute to the film’s constant tonal shifts. But despite this stylistic flourish, an accelerated pace, atypically exotic locations, and cinematic gloss, The Whistlers should not be mistaken for anything other than a Porumboiu film.
In fact, the movie seems to be a kind of sequel to his 2009 deconstructed police procedural Police, Adjective (a 2010 WFF selection). Actor Vlad Ivanov actually appears briefly in that film as a pompous provincial police captain with a penchant for sophistry. He returns in this film playing the same character, Cristi Anghelache, and alludes to his earlier experiences during a conversation with his own boss. Police, Adjective concerns language and the way in which it can be used for political ends. In The Whistlers, Porumboiu pursues this theme from a different angle by exploring a secret language used for criminal ends.