Photo: Vlad Cioplea
by Chris Mello Featured Film Spotlight

The Whistlers | Corneliu Porumboiu

February 21, 2020

The Whistlers makes the most of its basic parts, tying some nifty knots and glossing up proceedings, but it fails to offer anything memorable.

Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is a tight, satisfying crime yarn — even if its small quirks and arthouse sheen sometimes get in the way of the good time its offering. Setting out not to reinvent the wheel so much as spin it, and spin it well, the Romanian director’s latest checks all the boxes one would expect of its genre: murder, triple crosses, misbegotten romance. Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a crooked cop, seeks to set free his incarcerated, drug-smuggling boss, with the help of some affiliates. But to do so successfully, he and the others must travel to La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, to learn Silbo Gomero, a language that transcribes Spanish (and, now, Romanian) into whistling. The gist is that Cristi will communicate, via whistle, when freeing his boss from a Bucharest prison. It’s a strange contrivance of a device that Porumboiu only manages to make great use of in the film’s just-as-contrived, too sentimental epilogue. But it gets things out of Bucharest for a time, contrasting the drab Romanian city with the more vibrant landscapes of the Canaries, lending the film an air of globe-trotting adventure.

Though the whistling is the only real wrinkle in the otherwise standard police procedural narrative, Porumboiu glosses up the proceedings with an ever steady camera, some psychologically expressive lighting, and the sorts of narrative digressions that are usually reserved for films twice as long. Those digressions, too, are efficient, delivering plot and characterization simultaneously without much fanfare. A scene between Cristi and his priest, for instance, reveals both the officer’s uneasy home life and how his superiors in the department catch on to his double agent status. These moments add intrigue, instead of bloat, and by the time bullets finally fly, The Whistlers has worked itself into a series of thrilling knots — though ones that do come untied a bit too easily.

Published as part of February 2020’s Before We Vanish.