[Review] ‘THE WHISTLERS’ a creative ploy falls on deaf ears in this Romanian thriller

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE WHISTLERS

Not rated, 97 minutes.
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Cast: Vlad IvanovCatrinel MarlonRodica Lazar, Sabin Tambrea and Agustí Villaronga

THE WHISTLERS has all the elements needed to make a captivating thriller: a corrupt cop, a mysterious woman needing the cop’s help, drug money and double-crosses. It also wants to act as a social commentary about the state of surveillance and being watched. The movie’s title is with respect to Silbo Gomero (“Gomeran whistle”), the whistling language of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. It’s like Morse Code, to an extent. It transpositions Spanish into whistling. If you weren’t familiar with the technique, you might mistake it for birds chirping. It seems like a smart way to avoid having something incriminatory caught on tape.    

Our anti-hero, Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a corrupt Romanian cop under scrutiny by police chief Magda (Radica Lazar), takes a leave of absence to visit the Canary Islands. The vacation is a necessary gambit where he meets up with Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), an attractive femme fatale who coerces him to help her. They’re chasing Gilda’s drug money, that also belonged to her former (now incarcerated) partner, Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), whose mattress warehouse was a drug front.     

Corneliu Porumboiu’s caper works best in the first act, as Cristi becomes involved in the charade. Then, the narrative jumps timelines with segmented episodes, each beginning with a colorful intertitle that gives the name of a supporting character who becomes the new primary focus. It’s a means to keep the audience busy – connecting characters and their motivations – as Cristi works to retrieve the money and possibly make a new life with Gilda.   

However, after that first act, where Cristi is trained on how to whistle, the movie begins to lag. 

THE WHISTLERS is structured like an ongoing plot device that seems to contradict and deviate from its intended promise: escape. Betrayals and double-crosses spur the story along to keep our attention; ultimately, leading to an anti-climatic conclusion. Even the whistling ploy, which attracted my own interest in the film, is used sparingly. And when whistling does occur, filmmaker Porumboiu isn’t overtly commenting on the omnipresent of surveillance in Romania. It’s just another way to move the story forward.                

Plot devices aside, I do admire the thriller’s attempt by incorporating the art of Silbo to confound others in pursuit of the money. Also, too, its references to the western THE SEARCHERS, and for Gilda being an obvious nod to Rita Hayworth’s famous film noir femme fatale. 

If I can recommend anything about THE WHISTLERS, it would be for Cristi’s mother, who, in her brief appearances, brings some added levity to the picture. In particular, what she does when she discovers the bag of money that her son puts in the basement – a twist I wasn’t expecting.    

Lauren Bacall made whistling look so easy when she told Humphrey Bogart just to put his lips together and blow in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Sadly, the whistles that echo in Porumboiu’s puzzle seem to fall on deaf ears.    

Grade: C

THE WHISTLERS is now playing in select theaters.

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