A stonefaced middle-aged Romanian cop arrives on the brutally beautiful island of La Gomera (the original title of The Whistlers) in the Canaries. A stunning woman is there to meet him. Forget what happened in Bucharest, she whispers into his ear as they embrace, it was just for the security cameras. We can guess what “Bucharest” was all about but writer/director Corneliu Poromboiu gives it to us anyway, in a vivid, cool, drily funny and sexy flashback to Cristi’s (Vlad Ivanov) first encounter with Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) – her film noir name absolutely no mistake.
Hang on to those moments because that’s it as far as sex and jokes are concerned. Style, yes, plenty of it, and homage, as Poromboiu, on a budget vastly bigger than anything he’s had before, mashes Jean-Pierre Melville (the gang and its code of masculinity) together with John Woo (the operatic face-off, to borrow a title), spiking the result with funny micro-meta moments when he pulls back just for a second to reveal that he’s playing with us and having fun himself.
Back to the plot, which won’t detain us for long. It turns out Cristi is a cop playing both sides. We watch him in flashback and flashforward – in Bucharest, going about his day job as a cop (on the take) and then in La Gomera, where, with Gilda’s associates, he is learning the island’s famous whistling language – El Silbo – a pre-internet, pre-telegraph way of communicating across vast ravines, now repurposed by this criminal gang. Exotica, right there.
In grey Bucharest Cristi dances on the edge of having his cover blown by his smart and no-nonsense boss, Magda (Rodica Lazar). In warm and sunny La Gomera he is tutored in whistling by gangster Kiko (Antonio Buíl), while gangster’s-moll Gilda largely fades into the background until it’s time for her to re-emerge. Without ruining the enjoyable but emaciated plot, though they’re nominally on different sides, Gilda and Cristi are in many respects the same – except she’s a statuesque babe of the first order and he’s a soft-middled public official with a face a like shoe.
Vlad Ivanov you might recognise if you’ve a taste for Romanian cinema. He’s been in some of the best of those from recent decades – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Child’s Pose, but also Toni Erdmann (a co-production with Germany prominent) and Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho’s epic sci-fi). Those flat, impassive features, barely a flicker of emotion, how incredibly watchable he is.
Poromboiu has previous in cop thrillers, having given us the superb meta-thriller Police, Adjective, but before that 12:08 East of Bucharest, a dry political comedy aimed at the post-Ceaușescu moment when suddenly everyone turned out to have been a hero and on the right side all along as the Communist era came to an end.
The meta-moments mentioned earlier are spectacular – the funniest being the sudden arrival, while the gangsters are rehearsing their upcoming job, of an enthusiastic young movie director on the scene, keen to scope out this fabulous warehouse they’re all in and he’s just stumbled across. Sure, come in, they say… A Tarantino “I’m just fucking with you”.
But for the most part this is a very procedure-heavy film. Beneath the concern with language (forked tongue branch), Poromboiu focuses on men (mostly) in desolate locations, travelling in cars, making purposeful movements, working to a script. Everyone seems suffused with an existential ennui. Alain Delon should be in it, really.
And then, suddenly, after much choreographed positioning of Cristi and Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), nominally Gilda’s gang-boss lover, Cristi and the gang, Cristi and Magda, Cristi and Gilda, there’s a sudden bam… bam… bam of developments, often with opera up loud on the soundtrack and we’re out in Singapore for a finale that is arresting, spectacular, bizarre and incredibly satisfying.
John Wayne turns up at one point, in The Searchers. So does a clip from Un Comisar Acuzã, a Romanian gang thriller by Sergiu Nicolaescu (often described as the Romanian Spielberg). These might both be telling references, they might not. This is definitely the sort of film it is worth watching more than once.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023