After a number of high art house features (including 12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective and The Treasure) that won acclaim at festivals and even theatrical distribution beyond Romania in some cases, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu makes a swerve into more genre-grounded territory with his latest, neo-noir study The Whistlers (La Gomera). A Romania-France-Germany co-production that unfolds not just in Porumboiu’s hometown Bucharest but also on the Canary island of La Gomera and even Singapore, this highly entertaining but dense tale of a cop double-crossing both his department and the gangsters with whom he’s in cahoots constantly corkscrews around in every sense, deploying flashbacks frequently as it reveals twist after twist.
Some of the director’s passionate followers may feel a bit bemused by this shift away from the long takes and scruffy production values of his earlier Romanian New Wave work. However, Porumboiu’s recurring preoccupation with language, loyalty and the legacy of Nicolae Ceau?escu’s repressive regime is still there, just approached from another angle. In fact, that call back to Romanian history is so sotto voce here it wouldn’t be surprising if some enterprising producer from another territory nabbed this for remake rights. Just a few tweaks would be needed to repurpose it for another culture and set of co-producing partners.
The one non-negotiable plot element is probably the ancient whistling language of La Gomera, also known as El Silbo Gomero, that cop protagonist Cristi (Porumboiu regular Vlad Ivanov) learns from his Spanish-speaking mafioso associates in order to evade the surveillance of his police colleagues. A communication system that stretches back generations, this kind of whistling maps vowel and consonants from Spanish onto particular pitches of whistling. (It’s the hardcore kind you do with a finger in the mouth, not your common pucker-and-blow sort of whistling.) The noise can be loud enough to reach ears miles away across a mountainous ravine on a volcanic island near Africa or, as it’s later cleverly deployed, from one brutalist mid-20th century tower block in Bucharest to another.
Mind you, if you tell the story in chronological order, the whistling comes in much later. Porumboiu’s script packs in a lot of incident, so thankfully guidance is provided not just by the very different Romanian and Canaries locations but by different lighting styles and color coding, supervised by his artistic director and wife Artantxa Etchevarria Porumboiu. The transitions are abruptly rendered with hard cuts, often synchronized to the non-source soundtrack that features in the early running Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” always a kicky tune to start a film with.
Basically, the plot revolves around a mattress factory outside Bucharest that’s being used to transport and launder vast piles of euros for gangsters working out of Spain and Venezuela. The factory owner, a small-time criminal named Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), is the middleman along with his girlfriend, the none-too-subtly named Gilda (Catrinel Marlon, channeling all the slinky femme fatales of film history but still managing to build up a recognizable human-sized character). The big boss is a broken-nosed, sad-eyed hombre named Paco (Agusti Villaronga), whose sidekicks include whistling maestro Kiko (Antonio Buil), who has the unreciprocated hots for Gilda.
On the police side, there’s Cristi, his young gormless partner Alin (George Pisterneanu) and their boss Magda (Rodica Lazar). She may or may not be just as crooked as Cristi given that she knows that her office, just like Cristi’s apartment, is riddled with secret cameras and bugs. The state is always watching them and no one can be trusted, which is why it’s useful to know a language that’s almost an uncrackable code.
Whether Cristi is loyal to his department or Paco or just Gilda (who obligingly pretends to be a call girl and has sex with him for the benefit of the spying cops) remains unclear up until the end. In actual fact, it doesn’t really matter because this is largely a film built up from tense set-pieces that almost feel complete enough to stand alone as tiny shorts: a scene where the gang practices whistling across Gomera’s chasms, a chilly climactic scene at the countryside home of Cristi’s mother and the final coda at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, a gloriously kitsch setting that’s slightly at odds with the emotional tone of the last scene.
The whole package is perfectly enjoyable, but sometimes it feels maybe a touch too facile and too immersed in the old-school gender attitudes of classic noirs to pass without censure the hyper-sensitive scrutiny of millennial viewers. (Is that sex scene really necessary?) The script may hum and buzz with twists and require concentration, but that’s not exactly the same as being intellectually satisfying and rich the way Porumboiu’s earlier work was. They were closer to profound; this is just clever.
Production companies: 42 Km Film Production, Les films du Worso, Komplizen Film
Cast: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Antonio Buil, Agusti Villaronga, Sabin Tambrea, George Pisterneanu
Director-screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
Artistic director: Artantxa Etchevarria Porumboiu
Producers: Marcela Mindru Ursu, Patricia Poienaru, Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon, Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach, Maren Ade
Director of photography: Tudor Mircea
Production designer: Simona Paduretu
Costume designer: Dana Paparuz
Editor: Roxana Szel
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)