Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures releases the film on Friday, February 28.
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu makes playful movies with a lot to say. From the chatty historical inquiries of his debut “12:08 East of Bucharest” to the deadpan musings on the language of justice in “Police, Adjective” to the ethics of filmmaking in “When Evening Falls in Bucharest or Metabolism,” Porumboiu has managed to mine compelling ideas out of slow-burn narrative techniques loaded with unpredictability. With 2015’s heartwarming father-son story “The Treasure” — in which the roving narrative builds to sentimental payoff — he started to enrich his style with more approachable methods. That proclivity grows even stronger with his entertaining noir “The Whistlers,” a polished mashup of genre motifs that suggests what might happen if the “Ocean’s 11” gang assembled on the Canary Islands.
That’s right: One of the directors tied to the so-called Romanian New Wave of the aughts, when dreary masterpieces like “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and Two Days” and “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” generated global acclaim, has made a bonafide commercial movie. But Porumboiu, a cerebral director whose narrative style always comes equipped with a prankish spirit, imbues this slick ensemble piece with a wry agenda.
“The Whistlers” goes down easy and dissipates soon after the credits roll, but with a murky plot in which the heist in question is often beside the point, the accomplishment of the movie lies within what it says about that agreeable flow. This is the story of a man who imagines he’s at the center of one movie, only to learn that he’s the supporting character in a very different one.
“The Whistlers” begins with a rather strange hook: Corrupt middle-aged police inspector Cristi (Vlad Ivanov, who could have been a Michael Keaton stunt-double in another life) arrives on the island of La Gomera, where he intends to get a corrupt businessman out of prison. In order to do that, however, he must first master the whistling language of the island, which criminals have used to communicate for generations.“When cops hear it, they think the birds are singing,” says Kiko (Antonio Buil), the thug tasked with leading Cristi into an underground world of hidden agendas and illegal schemes that remain vague throughout most of the movie. There’s the potential for a big score, the threat of police officers closing in, and even a love story…but good luck trying to sort it all out, because in the grand tradition of “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep,” Porumboiu treasures the chemistry between his characters over the meandering scenario that grows around them.
Before long, Cristi has been sat down by femme fatale Gilda (Catrinel Marlon, whose dynamic screen presence makes her a genuine discovery) for a lesson on the whistling language. Cristi’s attempts to replicate those musical syllables as his hand rummages around his mouth and he exhales to no avail provide a recurring slapstick device — at least until he gets the hang of it, and the communication process becomes a clever storytelling device replete with its own subtitles. It’s an unusual conceit, but here’s the thing: There actually is a whistling language on La Gomera. The movie’s cleverness extends from the way it applies this unique cultural tradition within the framework of a shaggy-dog noir, and gets away with it in much the same way that its characters conceive of their foolproof scheme.
“The Whistlers” careens through a dense narrative filled with supporting characters, revealing each new player with a neon title card presenting their name, from Magda (Rodica Lazar), the frantic police chief tracking Cristi’s movements from afar, to Paso (Agusí Villaronga), a mob boss determined to make Cristi do his bidding. But so does Gilda, who wields her sex appeal and shooting skills with equal determination as she draws Cristi into a plan to steal some hidden loot while keeping her full agenda a secret. It would be counterintuitive to reveal how all these pieces come together, but also irrelevant: Laced together with a snappy soundtrack that starts with an inspired use of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” Porumboiu rejoices in the ebullient language of this storytelling tradition while turning it inside out. When Cristi’s mother enters in the story from an unexpected direction, it begins to seem as though Cristi imagines himself as a kind of latter-day Danny Ocean, when in fact he’s the last person in charge of the story’s trajectory.
As the movie builds toward a final showdown, it defaults to some more traditional sequences, falling into the same formula that other stretches of the story deconstruct. A lengthy nighttime shootout at the island hotel holds less intrigue simply because it feels like old territory. But even here, Porumboiu injects amusing tangents and referential curveballs, including a blatant nod to “Psycho” that provides yet another remind that this pastiche of a movie is really a celebration of what movies can do. When considered in its most literal terms, “The Whistlers” could be ripe for an English-language remake, and don’t be surprised if some hungry producer snaps up the rights. But that possibility carries a touch of irony, since “The Whistlers” is already a covert remake, since it revisits the energy and wit of heist movies before it, as well as the filmmaker’s own structural sophistication his previous works, and revitalizes both traditions in the process.
“The Whistlers” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.