The Whistlers Review
Corrupt cops, a hidden stash of cash and a sultry woman in a slinky scarlet dress. So far, so noir. Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu seems to take great pleasure in nodding to the genre in his contemporary take, which played in competition at Cannes in 2019. But while much feels familiar in this stylish but ultimately slight thriller, Porumboiu does have a unique weapon in his arsenal: the criminal gang uses Silbo Gomero, a language comprised of loud whistles native to the Canary Islands, to secretly communicate with each other.
Dissatisfied cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) is forcibly ferried to an idyllic villa on the Canary Islands by a gangster. The journey’s purpose is soon clear: he is to be taught this whistling language by apparent femme fatale Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), to eventually be used in a high-stakes heist. Porumboiu punctuates this with several chapters of flashback which reveal how Cristi is drawn into the underworld, playing gangsters and police off against each other while keeping his own cards close to his chest.
The scenes in which Cristi learns Silbo Gomero are, appropriately, The Whistlers’ most compelling. Adapted from Spanish to accommodate Romanian’s additional vowels, it’s a genuine pleasure to hear the whistles and see the sounds decoded through subtitles. And while the film has a distinctly European identity, it remains tethered to its Hollywood influences. Not only does cinematographer Tudor Mircea pay homage to film noir by casting long shadows across the interiors, but one key rendezvous takes place in a screening of The Searchers, there is an overt reference to Psycho’s shower scene, and the climax unfolds in a large scale movie set recreation of the Wild West.
Film noirs can be notoriously difficult to follow: genre-defining classic The Big Sleep is famously confusing, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s electric chemistry deemed more important than a satisfying plot. Keeping up with The Whistlers’ tangled web of deception, intrigue and side-switching is hard work, but the blank-faced Cristi, a solid grey wall of unexpressive bulk, is too emotionally impenetrable to be as watchable as Bogie.
Gilda (surely a reference to Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale), is as equally one dimensional, and the stuff of male fantasy. Lacking any distinctive personality traits, she is seductress, then victim, then inexplicably a love interest for our inscrutable antihero. From her first encounter with Cristi during which she poses as a sex worker, giving her a semblance of agency while the camera has ample opportunity to ogle her, to being threatened at gunpoint and sexually assaulted, the role is thankless.
While The Whistlers is a self-assured uprooting of one of Hollywood most fundamental genres, in providing next to no insight into its hero’s state of mind, it’s, frankly, rather difficult to care. It may be an interesting curiosity for film noir aficionados, but it’s too hollow to resonant as deeply as the classics it borrows from.
The Whistlers will be available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from May 8.