The Whistlers (La Gomera)
Romania (2019) Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu
Remember when Lauren Bacall told Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not that to whistle, “You just put your lips together and blow”? Well, it would appear that it isn’t so simple, according to some countries where techniques differ quite substantially and the whistle has a specific purpose.
Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) is a corrupt Bucharest police officer working on the case of mattress factory owner Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) laundering money 30 million Euros for Spanish drug lord Paco (Agustí Villaronga) via his mattresses. Cristi’s boss Magda (Rodica Lazar) suspects Cristi is double-crossing them so she has his house bugged, which he is aware of but doesn’t let on that he knows.
Working undercover, Cristi travels to La Gomera in the Canaries Islands to learn the archaic whistling language of Silbo from Paco’s henchman Kiko (Antonio Buil). However, back in Bucharest, Zsolt’s girlfriend Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) seduces Cristi into helping her escape from Paco and get Zsolt out of police custody, offering him a cut of the money. Having fallen for Gilda and realising what the money can do for him, Cristi has to play three deadly games and not be caught.
Keeping track of the sinuous plotting of this modern day noir from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu was one of the hardest things about watching The Whistlers, the other being struggling to heat the English language dialogue as spoken by the European cast because Curzon Artificial Eye once again denied us hard of hearing folk subtitles for these parts! So, apologies if this review is a bit glib in places.
Once you’ve taken the time to process everything, it is possible to appreciate just how tightly crafted the story is, if lacking in credibility in places, but this does require a lot of effort due to the execution involving unmarked flashbacks in the first half. Had this been a 1940s production, a handy voice over would have let us know which timeline we are in, but Porumboiu doesn’t afford us that courtesy, so be prepared to be confused, even with the film broken down into titled sections to introduce the main characters.
The best example of this is the opening which sees Cristi arrive by ferry at La Gomera, and is taken to Paco’s home where Gilda is already there but pretending they’ve never met. “Forget about Bucharest” she says when they are alone, the cue to jump back in time to her seduction of Cristi, posing as a high-class hooker to avoid suspicion in front of the hidden police cameras.
Unfortunately, Cristi fell under Gilda’s spell when she slept with him as part of their ruse (not hard to understand, to be fair), so he was all in about going to La Gomera to help her escape from Paco’s employ. In a double cross of this double cross, Gilda wants Cristi to learn Silbo so they can communicate in secret in front of Paco and Kiko as well as the police, as they are plotting to drop Paco in it since he doesn’t know Cristi is a cop.
So what is Silbo? It’s an ancient language of the Guanches where syllables form words which are whistled instead of spoken. The technique involves placing a hooked finger (like pulling a gun trigger) into the right hand side of the mouth and blowing over the finger, with different intonations creating different words. It’s perfect for criminals to fool police into thinking it is birds whistling, and circumvents the use of easily hacked mobile phones.
Back to the plot, and despite Magda having Cristi under surveillance, she is not beyond bending the rules to get results, and is the architect behind the deception to use Zsolt to smoke Paco’s gang out when collecting the money. Except of course, it is not that straightforward since Cristi has to manipulate the situation to suit the needs of Magda, Gilda, and himself which isn’t easy – not to mention the mystery of where the money really is, which is another subplot in itself.
If you are trying to get your head around all of this, it is actually more confusing when played out on screen for reasons already discussed, but thankfully, it settles down in the late second act where it remains in the present day. This doesn’t stop narrative jumps occurring to expediate the progress of the various plans executed to reach the specific endgames of the numerous parties involved, as if the audience is supposed to be in the dark as much as the opposing sides are.
Porumboiu must have given himself a headache writing the script, ensuring everything was in place and added up by the time the conclusion was reached, and I’m sure many audiences will feel satisfied with the end result. One lacking area is in the characters, none of whom seem to be more than the tropes they represent – Cristi, the bent copper, Gilda is the femme fatale, Magda the shifty boss, Paco the slimy villain, etc. – and with a run time of 93-minutes, the story allows little room to explore them properly either.
Having seen Romanian films mostly deal with social issues in vérité-like dramas, this one is quite a departure in being a glossily produced, comparatively hi-tech outing. There is still that European grittiness found in the police work, whilst La Gomera’s serene rural charm feels like it has been largely untouched by modernity. The cast pay their roles well enough, with Catrinel Marlon the most memorable as the aptly named Gilda in her throwback to the classic noir vixen role.
The Whistlers is highly ambitious in its aspirations to keep the audience hooked with a complex plot, but serves to confuse for the same reason – not to mention the paucity of actual whistling. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more if it was easier to follow and I could hear all the dialogue, so it gets a generous middling score from me I’m afraid.