At first, Corneliu Porumboiu’s film The Whistlers seems dry, as its tale of corrupt cops and gangsters unfolds with a muted color palette and stoic characters. But quirky details point toward a stranger, sillier, softer story that brings to mind Wes Anderson’s sense of style and earnestness. The film never reaches Anderson’s level of twee-ness, though. Instead, The Whistlers’ central device, myriad intertwining stories, colorful interstitial cards, and bittersweet, romantic conclusion create the sense of Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11, High Flying Bird) taking a page out of Anderson’s book.
The long takes familiar from Porumboiu’s work on The Treasure and Police, Adjective are nowhere to be found in The Whistlers. They’ve been replaced by a neat pace and a series of flashbacks, as corrupt cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov, the Romanian Michael Keaton) gets caught up in a money-laundering scheme. Following a plea from the beautiful Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), he heads to the island of La Gomera to learn El Silbo, a (very real) whistling language, so he can help get a crooked businessman out of prison. Complicating matters is the fact that nobody’s clean. The gangsters Cristi is helping definitely aren’t honest, but neither are his police colleagues. His boss Magda (Rodica Lazar) takes all serious meetings outside of her office because she knows it’s bugged, and she has no problem planting evidence in order to get her way.
The pleasure of the film isn’t in tracking where the money is going, so much as it’s in each of these introductions, particularly as the characters grow more eccentric. (A key location in the film is Opera, a hotel whose apparent sole staffer is constantly playing opera records. While Cristi finds the habit annoying, the clerk says they educate his customers.) As the cast grows, each new character is introduced by an interstitial card bearing their name. Not all of them fill out all three dimensions, because the story moves along too quickly. But that doesn’t matter much, given how solid an anchor Cristi is.
Ivanov’s dour features take on a comedic quality as Cristi’s haplessness grows, speeded along by his attraction to and affection for Gilda. As he slowly becomes better at the whistling language, and it becomes more evident that he’s a pawn in a larger game, Porumboiu’s focus on communication gets clearer and clearer.
El Silbo is fascinating in part because it’s real, and in part because of the way it’s structured, mapping whistled tones over the Spanish syntax, and changing the music of language from metaphor to a literal fact. But the language barriers don’t stop there. The cops don’t speak El Silbo, which is why the gangsters use it, especially as it’s often confused with birdsong. But the characters also speak Romanian, Spanish, and English, depending on the context and their conversation partners. Cristi’s whistling lessons, for instance, are given in English. The nature of El Silbo seems to emphasize just how malleable language can be, as the wrong pitch or elongation of a note — out of ignorance or a breathing flub on the whistler’s part — could vastly change a message.
The web of languages is so sharply executed that it’s almost a disappointment when the film, by necessity, defaults to more typical crime-movie conventions, as tensions between the gangsters and police come to a head. A final few whistles are more thrilling than any chase or shootout. It’s worth noting, however, that the final scene unfolds without dialogue. Two characters simply gaze at each other, and the way Porumboiu builds up to that look makes it tremendously affecting, if a little cheesy. The constant flashbacks and asides that fill in details pay off in a rare unrushed moment.
With The Whistlers, Poromboiu has concocted a perfect mix of elements, from twee name cards and the use of an obscure language to a seemingly hard-boiled cop and a femme fatale. As commercial as the movie seems by comparison to his other work (the Romanian New Wave isn’t known for its light, fun stories), it’s still deftly told, with a fascination with language and the way stories are told that keep it from being just one more story about a corrupt cop.
The Whistlers is in limited theatrical release now.