(Release Info UK schedule; May 8th, 2020, Curzon Home Cinema)
'The Romanian New Wave' goes global in 'The Whistlers', the latest eccentric yarn from director Corneliu Porumboiu. Not everything is as it seems for Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a corrupt police inspector in Bucharest who plays both sides of the law. Embarked by the beautiful Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) on a high-stakes heist, both will have to navigate the twists and turns of treachery and deception. This twisty gangster noir opens on 'La Gomera', where Cristi is sent against his will. In a downright whimsical turn, he’s there to learn the region’s aboriginal whistling language, which he needs to pull off an elaborate plot right under the noses, or rather ears, of 'The Romanian Police'. As the film’s labyrinthine plot unfolds with clockwork precision, revolving, of course, around a stash of money, there are twists, turns, and double-crossings aplenty, involving not just Cristi’s also-corrupt superior Magda (Rodica Lazar), but also his mother (Julieta Szönyi), and femme fatale Gilda. A secret whistling language spoken on 'The Spanish' island of 'LaGomera' might just be what they need to pull it off.
The opening scene, the almost triumphant arrival on the island of 'La Gomera', lays the foundations of the film; Cristi thinks he’s in heaven but soon discovers he’s bugged and under surveillance. He's in fact imprisoned by the gaze of others. Within the context of a very ambiguous police investigation, it's a story of a disillusioned cop, who shows up at 'La Gomera' to meet a woman and learn a whistled language. But things get more complicated and nothing goes according to plan. The policeman embarks on an initiatory journey, a kind of adventure with many turns and surprising twists. We don’t immediately understand that Cristi is wire-tapped and suspected by the police. His character does not lend itself to immediate identification, but the film gradually reveals his secret to us. Cristi is a complex character, initially thinks he’s controlling things but he’s mistaken because very soon he's caught in a storm, a vertiginous triangle. He's no longer the master of his fate. Cristi is disillusioned and elusive. He's no longer believes in his vocation, he starts to work with the mafia and to make money from drug trafficking. He’s a person who no longer believes in anything, in his professional life, his private life, and he seeks to escape all of this when he gets to the island of 'La Gomera'. As a police officer, he's part of the power structure and he thinks he’s in control of his life, but rather quickly he's caught up in a storm of events beyond his control.
People talk a lot, ponder things, to try to define this revolution that eventually overthrows the power that's unshakeable for so long. In this film, the characters are caught up in a world dominated by strong opinions, where everyone wants to impose their point of view on others; it’s a permanent power play. In a dark world where everything must be negotiated, genuine communication functions better through a secret language that enables, for those who master it, the ability to extract oneself from the control of very tense human relationships, to be able to preserve a kind of sincerity. This secret language is crucial for Cristi, as he comes to use it for personal ends that have nothing to do with the criminal reasons for which he has to learn it. His seriousness in all circumstances occasionally makes him comical. Cristi is quite opaque and doesn’t show much emotion, but he shows his hand at a key moment; when he negotiates Gilda’s future with the mafia. He's madly in love with her. So we discover the truth about the characters only through their actions.
Gina is the archetype of a woman. She betrays the men, turning against them. She's a lure, ambiguous and unsettling character who manages to manipulate others without them realising it. She succeeds in giving full weight to the scene of the kiss with Cristi, staged to dupe the police officers following them. It's a moment that reveals her power. She always knows how to play her different roles before the surveillance cameras and she masters some very tense and borderline situations. Gilda eventually escapes this constant roleplaying, gradually revealing herself to herself, and becoming a more real or realistic woman. All the while remaining a film character. Gilda is the femme fatale, and Magda, the prosecutor, Cristi’s boss, is a strong and cold woman in the style of Marlene Dietrich. The mafia boss Paco (Agusti Villaronga) avoids the cliché of 'The Mafiosi'. In the end, we understand that the strongest characters are the women around him; Gilda, Magda, and his mother. The women are pulling the strings to move the story forward. Here, we understand that he's being carried along by the women. In the end, his decisions are not his choices.
It's a story with characters who lie, who play a double game. They believe they’re the masters of their fate. The principle of this film lies in transactions, including the transaction of words. The dialogues here are no longer discussions based on an idea but hard and fast exchanges, like ping-pong, blow upon blow. Each character is caught up in their professional role, the cops and mafia have a functional way of talking, there’s not much time for forethought because they’re constantly having to take action. In an increasingly controlled society in which everyone must play a role, a very old form of communication can allow people to escape it; to escape from this control and the constant power relations that determine the actions of each character. The characters are playing roles and the film plays with the codes of language and genre. The visual references follow this idea. Each character plays a role for others. Only Cristi’s mother has retained a kind of sincerity and realism. Each of the chapters bearing the name of a character who plays an important part in Cristi’s story arc. The film establishes distanciated, abstract aesthetic, to emphasise the idea of artifice and the roleplaying of each of the characters.
This film is based on the whistled language 'El Silbo', practised on the island of 'La Gomera'. 'The Romanian' title refers to the name of this island in 'The Canaries', a place to get away from it all, a lost paradise. 'The French' and 'English' titles refer to the mysterious whistled language that exists in many different places in the world but whose roots are unknown. This island of 'La Gomera' is closely linked to the tradition of these whistles. The whistled language struck as a possibility for pursuing this theme differently. Adjective on language and the way in which it's used for political ends. The history of a secret language, used for criminal ends, is the core that determined the narrative style and staging. The language 'El Silbo Gomero' allows us to code spoken language, in a similar way to how film codes reality. The film plays with the codes of very different genres, from the detective film or film noir, to the western or comedy.
'The Romanian' auteur’s glossiest, most expensive production to date, "The Whistlers" nonetheless retains a eclectic sensibility and deadpan humour. Watching this deliriously enjoyable tale, you like the characters, you getting away with something. You’ll want to go along for the ride. The film creates an imbalance between heroic pretensions and the reality of things. This terribly serious side, in all circumstances, gives the film a touch of the absurd. "The Whistlers" is edgy, imaginative, and seems to deal with reality. It's a very dark film, a comment on human relations and today’s society.