The Whistlers review – slick and playful Romanian crime story

Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu changes lanes for this twisty, Tarantino-like thriller

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu has a thing for boring movies. That’s not an insult. It’s always been a conscious decision on his part to shine a spotlight on the tedious and banal parts of life that cinema usually eschews. Previous works like The Treasure and Police, Adjective were content to sit and meander. In the latter, a police officer found himself trapped in an endless bureaucratic process, as audiences slowly came to realise nothing big was ever going to happen. Dull, but by design.

With its plot of police corruption, his latest, The Whistlers (or La Gomera), shares a few similarities with those earlier works, and yet this film – playful, pulpy, and packed with incident for incident’s sake – gives us Porumboiu unlike we’ve seen him before. Has he had a change of heart? Or is he simply out to prove he could always do this, if only he’d wanted to?

In this case, the reasons don’t necessarily matter as much as the results. Luckily they’re mostly good, as The Whistlers forgoes the dreariness of small offices and stacks of paperwork for a noir-ish thriller about a police officer, Cristi, who finds himself entangled in a complicated web of lies, double crosses, and blurred intentions after he becomes involved in a crime he’s supposed to be investigating. When it all goes to hell, he must travel to La Gomera, an island in the Canaries, in order to free a corrupt businessman. But first he’s tasked with learning the traditional silbo “whistling” language, which has been adopted by the criminal organisation he needs to appease in order to avoid police detection.

Porumboiu seems to be channelling Quentin Tarantino in his use of coloured title cards and a story that jumps back and forth in time, slowly revealing more of the characters and their objectives. At one playful and purposely jarring moment, an enthusiastic American filmmaker – scouting for shooting locations – randomly waltzes into the film. He takes a particular interest in the warehouse where our characters are based, which may or may not be a nod to Tarantino and his Reservoir Dogs. It’s that kind of film: packed with weird little flourishes and references to the classics of cinema, from The Searchers to Psycho.

As Cristi, Vlad Ivanov’s performance is muted, but intentionally so, almost as though to bridge the gap between Porumboiu’s older works and this more consciously vibrant one (his character also happens to share a name with the lead character in Police, Adjective). Meanwhile, model-turned-actor Catrinel Menghia is mesmerising as the cool and resourceful femme fatale, Gilda, with whom Cristi falls in love after they wind up sleeping together as part of a ruse.

The Whistlers is an easy movie to get lost in, but it’s just as easy to lose your handle on its complicated plot. It’s also so concerned with twisting its story that most of the characters come over like two-dimensional pawns in their director’s game. It’s hard to feel much towards any of them, though you do wonder whether Porumboiu is aware of that – an intentional case of style over substance.

The film takes place in both Bucharest and in the Canaries, with one destination photographing far more beautifully than the other (no prizes for guessing which). There’s also a nice – though somewhat out of place – scene set in Singapore, though to reveal how the story gets that far would spoil the surprise in a film that thrives on them. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Porumboiu had a movie like this in him at all. Here’s hoping he has another.

This film was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019.

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