TIFF Review: The Whistlers (Porumboiu, 2019)

I would not call The Whistlers one of the best entries in the emerging Romanian New Wave canon, though that doesn’t take away from what Corneliu Porumboiu does well. His darkly acerbic humour migrates from his previous works, this film being particularly reminiscent of Police, Adjective in the way he revisits the crime genre and continues to infuse it with trenchant commentary on state corruption. Vlad Ivanov also returns, this time to play the lead role of Cristi, a police investigator neck-deep in the criminal underworld who must maintain his reputable façade while investigating the very felon he has personal ties to. This investigation leads him to, among other places, the island of La Gomera, where his criminal contacts teach him the whistling language of El Silbo (a phoneme-driven way to communicate important intel that, to untrained ears, merely sounds like bird calls). The importance of El Silbo here is, much like the mattress stuffed with millions in cash that everyone chases, a MacGuffin; Porumboiu utilizes it for both comedic and tragic effect, but it is not of vital importance in the way the title suggests it is. It is one of several feints he employs to dupe the viewer into expecting significant developments that, ultimately, do not come.

The Whistlers is, in essence, a big dupe enveloped around a relentless network of micro dupes. Every character either shifts their allegiance or deceives someone else to get ahead, and Porumboiu even takes it a step further by disrupting the temporal framework just enough so that locating oneself in the story takes some time to do. I don’t have the means to watch it through once more to pick up on every way this occurs (especially in the first act), but I’m sure this is something worth discussing when it’s given a North American release. At any rate, Porumboiu goes about shaping this film cleverly, no doubt as his own tribute to the purposely convoluted noirs of the 1940s (think films like The Big Sleep and Out of the Past). If the femme fatale being named Gilda isn’t a dead giveaway, then his homage certainly evidences itself in the very meat-and-potatoes crime story of guns and love affairs and hidden money—a story that would, no doubt, fit right into the classic noir mould if all the contemporary signifiers were removed. Porumboiu also makes more explicit references to the cinematic history he’s drawing from: characters meet at a theatre which is showing John Ford’s The Searchers (the clip used has, to no one’s surprise, a moment of mysterious whistling), while some of the film’s climactic scenes take place at an abandoned movie studio lot, amongst old sets and buildings. I would not read too much into these inclusions, for Porumboiu has not set out to make something especially cerebral here. Like the chummy tone that he employs with his upbeat needle drops, these kinds of winks and nods are there to keep the modern cineaste happy that they’re watching something that is so diverting.

This is why I can’t agree with critics who find this uninteresting. If you focus strictly on plot, then maybe it can be a chore. But Porumboiu clearly wants us to engage with this at other angles, and each one offers its own distinct pleasures. And, if I’m being honest, any film that wants to end in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay will find any easy time getting into my good books.


The Whistlers made its North American debut at TIFF in the Masters programme on September 5, 2019.