Monday, February 24, 2020

Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers

They are like the code-talkers of criminal capers. A corrupt Romanian police inspector has been sent to the Canary Islands to learn the ancient aboriginal whistling language known as El Silbo. The crooks he is in metaphorical bed with suspect his police and prosecutor colleagues will assume it is only the sound of birds chirping. He will pick up the El Silbo language quickly, but extracting himself from his extra-legal dilemma will be considerably trickier in Corneliu Porumboiu’s archly clever thriller, The Whistlers, which opens this Friday in New York.

When Gilda the femme fatale makes contact with Cristi, the bent copper, she catches on quicker than the audience does that he is under surveillance. She comes up with an appropriately femme fatalle-ish justification for her presence in his apartment, but she assures him the sex means nothing. Nevertheless, when they meet again on La Gomera in the Canaries, he cannot help feeling something for her.

She is part of the gang that has been bribing Cristi. Despite his inside information, the head of the Romanian operation has been arrested, so they have devised a plot to break him out of custody. That could leave Cristi a tad bit exposed, but the syndicate is not too worried about him. Cristi is also rather concerned about the abuse Gilda must take from a local La Gomera gangster. He would like to find a way to save her from the gang, even though he is still not sure he can trust her.

The Whistlers is indeed a clever little noir, with all kinds of surprises in store for viewers, making it a radical change of pace from Porumboi’s previous cerebral features, like The Treasure and Police, Adjective. The tone of Whistlers is considerably cooler than the average cross-and-double-cross criminal melodrama—like glacially cool—but it still delivers the genre goods.

Vlad Ivanov, who memorably played the semantically intimidating copper in Police, Adjective is perfectly cast as the drily cynical Cristi. He just looks like a crooked cop, but he also convincingly conveys a sense of Cristi’s increasingly conflicted motivations. Likewise, Catrinel Marlon keeps viewers happily guessing regarding Gilda’s intentions with Cristi. Yet, maybe the best noir work comes from Rodica Lazar, chewing the scenery with gleeful abandon as Magda, the prosecutor who is probably more corrupt than anyone, in her own mercenary way.

Franky, it is a bit of a shock that this film comes from Porumboiu, because it is so much fun. Yet, despite the long detour through the Canaries (and a brief stopover in Singapore), The Whistlers is still a distinctly Romanian film. In one tellingly example, Cristi instructs his mother to explain away some of his inconveniently revealed bribe money as left-over loot from his father, a minor official in the old Communist regime, because everyone knows they were on the take.

You might think you know how to whistle from watching Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, but Porumboiu and Marlon will teach you a new technique. It is a sly lesson worth learning. Highly recommended for fans of noir thrillers, The Whistlers opens this Friday (2/28) in New York, at Film Forum.