You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Whistlers’

Corneliu Porumboiu's deadpan, daffy noir has a cop caught in a labyrinthine plot involving women, whistling and a mattress full of money.

Corneliu Porumboiu
Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Antonio Buil, Agustí Villaronga, Sabin Tambrea, Julieta Szonyi, George Pisterneanu. (Romanian, English, whistling dialogue)

1 hour 38 minutes

With all due respect to Lauren Bacall, there’s always been a bit more to whistling than putting your lips together and blowing. Certainly for Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), the corrupt Bucharest policeman embroiled in a comically complex plot to get a local gangster off the hook in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Cannes competition title “The Whistlers,” it is a matter of life and death. It requires practise, training and a bent forefinger, angled between pursed lips, like it’s holding a gun and the bullet will exit the opposite ear.

Cristi has been sent to the island of La Gomera in The Canaries, where he is to learn the ancient whistling language originally, well, whistled by the Guanches, an aboriginal tribe native to the region. This is because, by the slightly lunatic logic of Porumboiu’s screenplay, in these days of easily hackable cellphones and widespread surveillance, whistling has the advantage of not even sounding like conversation. “The police will hear it and think the birds are singing!” says one of his accomplices.

As whimsical as this is, so far it’s not outside the established realms of Porumboiu’s eclectic, quicksilver curiosity. On paper, Cristi could simply be another of the director’s hangdog everymen, pursuing a quixotic, unrealistic and probably unnecessarily involved pipe dream that he believes will somehow make his life all better. That makes him a kindred spirit to the mid-level local functionary plotting the complete international overhaul of soccer in 2018’s wonderful “Infinite Football,” or the debt-ridden dad convinced there’s a fortune buried in a suburban garden in 2015’s “The Treasure.”

But “The Whistlers” is a departure, literally as well as figuratively, in that much of it is set outside Porumboiu’s native Romania, and the plot marches to the beat of the gangster noir, a genre that feels a little schematic and stifling for a director normally so beautifully uncategorizable. Cristi, who knows that his days playing both sides are numbered and that his frosty, gimlet-eyed boss Magda (Rodica Lazar) has installed spy cameras all over his apartment, is seduced into the scheme by the aptly named Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), as slinky a femme fatale as ever slinked. And soon he is mired in the treacherous middle ground between the criminal crew of Gilda, her boyfriend Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) and the big boss Paco (Agustí Villaronga), and his life in Romania, involving the also-corrupt Magda, his mother (Julieta Szonyi) and two mattresses stuffed to springiness with 100-euro bills.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in the simple eccentricity of the premise, which is pulled back from silliness by the cast’s underplaying and Porumboiu’s natural inclination to tamp proceedings back into drollery. That’s to say nothing of his regular d.p. Tudor Mircea’s camerawork, which is finessed, but still unshowy and naturalistic. By contrast, as is his wont, Porumboiu goes large with the soundtrack, smashing into and out of scenes on abrupt, bombastic tracks, which often mimic the whistling motif in the vibrato of an opera singer’s voice, or the exaggeratedly rolled ‘r’s and hissed ‘s’-es of Ute Lemper’s “Mack the Knife,” sung in the original German.

The director has long been established as the most skewedly humorous of the Romanian New Wave brigade, but that mischief-maker reputation does not mean his films have lacked substance. If anything, his style of disingenuously deadpan wit has given us some of the most lacerating commentary of the whole movement, cutting deeper because the critique is hidden under a smile — or more likely, a slow, owlish blink. “The Whistlers” has themes that are recurring, itchy areas of interest for Porumboiu: The preoccupation with language, as a means to reveal but also conceal, is the central concern of “Police, Adjective” and the negotiation of self-interest versus professional ethics, of codes of honor and codes of duty, seems to be an ongoing project.

So why does “The Whistlers” feel comparatively minor? Partly, there’s not enough whistling: As a screwy plot device with so much potential, it feels curiously under-exploited here. But mostly, it’s that Porumboiu’s cinema is about subtle, sly surprises that steal up on you while you think you’re watching something else. Moments of transcendent grace occur, sometimes in the very last frames, and always in the least encouraging of environments: bureaucratic offices, police stations, living-room sofas, dismal playgrounds. But within a neo-noir crime caper the archetypes are so deeply embedded, and the dimensions of the characters so familiar, that there is not a lot of room to pull one of those quietly dazzling switcheroos. Gilda, for example, can’t quite escape the thinness of the traditional femme fatale role, and it’s galling to see her treated as, essentially, the trophy that Cristi may or may not earn through his actions.

That’s also partly down to Cristi’s characterization. As outwardly stolid as Porumboiu’s protagonists can be, there tends to be something deeply lovable about them, a tiny flame of romantic idealism that burns lustily no matter how the world has tried to snuff it out. Cristi, corrupt from the outset and so taciturn it’s difficult to invest in his redemption arc, does fall for Gilda, but it doesn’t feel like a deep human connection as much as an inevitability, given her beauty and need for rescue, and his apparent loneliness. (According to their priest, his mother “worries” that he might be gay.) As a low-key romp with a twisty, globetrotting plot “The Whistlers” is an enjoyable affair with just enough of a slant to feel a little offbeat. But Porumboiu aficionados chasing the same weird high he has delivered time and again before — wherein a single moment can transform a ridiculous scheme into a fairy tale, or a silly notion into a grand philosophical quest — are just going to have to whistle for it.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Whistlers'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2019. Running time: 98 MIN. (Original title: "La Gomera")

Production: (Romania-France-Germany) A 42 Km Film, Les Films du Worso, Komplizen Film production in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, WDR, Film I Vast, Filmgate Films, Studioul de Creatie Cinematografica with the support of Romanian National Film Center, Eurimages, Bord Cadre Films, Cinema City. (International sales: MK2, Paris.) Producers: Marcela Mindru Ursu, Patricia Poienaru, Sylvie Pialat, Benoît Quainon, Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach, Maren Ade.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Corneliu Porumboiu. Camera (color, widescreen): Tudor Mircea. Editor: Roxana Szel. Music: Evgueni Galperine.

With: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Antonio Buil, Agustí Villaronga, Sabin Tambrea, Julieta Szonyi, George Pisterneanu. (Romanian, English, whistling dialogue)

More Film

  • Benjamin Wallfisch - scoring session, Abbey

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch Signs With Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has signed with the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for worldwide representation, in partnership with London-based agency COOL Music Ltd. A top composer, whose scoring credits include “It Chapter Two,” Shazam!” Hellboy,” “Hidden Figures” and “Hostile Planet,” among others, Wallfisch has worked on over 75 feature films and is a member of the BAFTA [...]

  • The Moneychanger

    Toronto Film Review: ‘The Moneychanger’

    Uruguayan auteur Federico Veiroj (“The Apostate,” “Belmonte”) broadens his usual intimate dramatic scope to diminishing returns for his fifth feature, “The Moneychanger,” . Adapted from a novella by compatriot Juan Enrique Gruber, the period (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) tale centers on the eponymous character, an amoral currency exchanger, who winds up laundering some of the dirtiest [...]

  • Send Me to the Clouds

    Film Review: ‘Send Me to the Clouds’

    The social and economic pressures felt by China’s “leftover women” — referring to those older than 26 and unmarried — are examined in “Send Me to the Clouds,” a rewarding dramedy about a 30-ish journalist seeking financial reward and sexual fulfillment after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Bold by mainland standards for presenting a positive [...]

  • Jamie Bell Without Remorse

    Jamie Bell Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Bell is in final negotiations to join Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel “Without Remorse.” Stefano Sollima, who most recently helmed “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” is directing from a script by “Sicaro” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. More Reviews Film Review: ‘Send Me to the Clouds’ Toronto Film Review: ‘The [...]

  • Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter,

    'Downton Abbey' Movie Sequel? Producers Tease That They Have 'Some Ideas'

    “Downton Abbey” holds the record as the most-nominated international show at the Emmy Awards with 69 nominations and 15 wins — and now, it stands a chance to nab an Oscar. More than three years after the beloved series signed off the air following six critically-acclaimed seasons, “Downton Abbey” is making its big-screen debut. More [...]

  • Todd Phillips Joaquin Phoenix Joker Movie

    What's Woker Than 'Joker'? Film Critics Made Everything Political at Fall Festivals

    “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Joaquin Phoenix, playing a deranged incel version of the DC supervillain in “Joker,” the unconventional comic book movie that’s sucked up much of the air from the fall festival circuit. Like an aggro caricature of the “involuntary celibates” who troll message boards online, [...]

  • Running Against the Wind

    Young Africans' Dreams Are Focus of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda Oscar Picks

    Films about young Africans trying to fulfill their dreams in the face of war, poverty, tradition and other forms of adversity have been submitted for Oscar consideration by three East African nations. The selections by Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda to compete in the international feature film category reflect the relative youth of filmmaking in the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content