Cannes Film Fest 2019: Romanian Porumboiu’s Neo-Noir The Whistlers

After several arthouse features (including 12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective and The Treasure) that won acclaim at festivals, Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu is at Cannes this year with a genre feature, a neo-noir titled The Whistlers (La Gomera).

Boasting an international flavor, The Whistlers is set not just in Porumboiu’s hometown Bucharest, but also on the Canary island of La Gomera and  Singapore.

The dense, multi-layered tale centers on a cop who’s double-crossing both his team mates and the gangsters with whom he is involved.

Porumboiu’s recurring themes of the use of language, loyalty and betrayal, and the enduring impact of Ceaușescu’s repressive regime are also evident here, if only in the background.

The ancient whistling language of La Gomera, El Silbo Gomero, that the cop Cristi (Porumboiu regular Vlad Ivanov) learns from his Spanish-speaking mafioso associates in order to evade his police colleagues.

It’s a communication that goes back generations, consisting of whistling maps vowel and consonants from Spanish onto particular pitches of whistling.  The sound, as the story later shows, can travel far away into distances.

so thankfully guidance is provided not just by the very different Romanian and Canaries locations but by different lighting styles and color coding, supervised by his artistic director and wife Artantxa Etchevarria Porumboiu. The transitions are abruptly rendered with hard cuts, often synchronized to the non-source soundtrack that features in the early running Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” always a kicky tune to start a film with.
Basically, the plot revolves around a mattress factory outside Bucharest that’s being used to transport and launder vast piles of euros for gangsters working out of Spain and Venezuela. The factory owner, a small-time criminal named Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), is the middleman along with his girlfriend, the none-too-subtly named Gilda (Catrinel Marlon, channeling all the slinky femme fatales of film history but still managing to build up a recognizable human-sized character). The big boss is a broken-nosed, sad-eyed hombre named Paco (Agusti Villaronga), whose sidekicks include whistling maestro Kiko (Antonio Buil), who has the unreciprocated hots for Gilda.
On the police side, there’s Cristi, his young gormless partner Alin (George Pisterneanu) and their boss Magda (Rodica Lazar). She may or may not be just as crooked as Cristi given that she knows that her office, just like Cristi’s apartment, is riddled with secret cameras and bugs. The state is always watching them and no one can be trusted, which is why it’s useful to know a language that’s almost an uncrackable code.
Whether Cristi is loyal to his department or Paco or just Gilda (who obligingly pretends to be a call girl and has sex with him for the benefit of the spying cops) remains unclear up until the end. In actual fact, it doesn’t really matter because this is largely a film built up from tense set-pieces that almost feel complete enough to stand alone as tiny shorts: a scene where the gang practices whistling across Gomera’s chasms, a chilly climactic scene at the countryside home of Cristi’s mother and the final coda at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, a gloriously kitsch setting that’s slightly at odds with the emotional tone of the last scene.
The whole package is perfectly enjoyable but sometimes it feels maybe a touch too facile and too immersed in the old-school gender attitudes of classic noirs to pass without censure the hyper sensitive scrutiny of millennial viewers. (Is that sex scene really necessary?) The script may hum and buzz with twists and require concentration, but that’s not exactly the same as being intellectually satisfying and rich the way Porumboiu’s earlier work was. They were closer to profound; this is just clever.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
Cast: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Antonio Buil, Agusti Villaronga, Sabin Tambrea, George Pisterneanu
Production: A 42 Km Film Production, Les films du Worso, Komplizen Film production
Director/screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
Artistic director: Artantxa Etchevarria Porumboiu
Producers: Marcela Mindru Ursu, Patricia Poienaru, Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon, Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach, Maren Ade
Director of photography: Tudor Mircea
Production designer: Simona Paduretu
Costume designer: Dana Paparuz
Editor: Roxana Szel
Sales: MK2
No rating; 97 minutes