Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Movie Review: The Whistlers

The Whistlers *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Corneliu Porumboiu.
Written by: Corneliu Porumboiu.
Starring: Vlad Ivanov (Cristi), Catrinel Marlon (Gilda), Rodica Lazar (Magda), Agustí Villaronga (Paco), Sabin Tambrea (Zsolt), Cristóbal Pinto (Carlito), Antonio Buíl (Kiko), George Pistereanu (Alin). 
For his latest film, The Whistlers, Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu has constructed one of the strangest noirs in recent memory. It’s a film where the very flawed male protagonist, Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) plays a corrupt cop, who is already in over his head before the narrative even begins, and will only succeed in falling further over the course of the movie. There is, of course, a femme fatale – the not-to-subtly named Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), who will draw him into a plot that involves drug dealers, money laundering, and a strange place where the criminals speak in a whistling language – so that even if the cops overhear them, it will just sound like birds. All the ingredients are here for a classic noir – full of double crosses, stacked upon double crosses, and a central relationship between Cristi and Gilda that you cannot tell until the final moments if its genuine or all an act. And yet, as entertaining as the film is – and it is very entertaining, especially as it gets bloodier, in the end I don’t think it adds up to any more than the sum of its part. For Porumboiu, who made the excellent Police, Adjective – whose climax involves reading out of a dictionary literally, but overall is a portrait of all that is wrong with Romania, it’s perhaps a little disappointing that there isn’t anything beneath the entertaining surface of the film.
Vlad Ivanov is one of the great international actors out there – he has been great in any number of Romanian films (like Police Adjective) – but more often than not, it’s in a supporting role as the villain or the heavy, etc. Here, he gets the lead – and not only that, it’s a little bit lighter than normal. It’s not quite a comedic role – but there are certainly comedic elements to it, as he tries to learn who to whistle like the criminals he is pursuing. He plays a tragic noir hero – think Fred MacMurray, and does it well. As Gilda, Marlon does quite get the same role, but she makes the most of it anyway, playing her character with the proper amount of sex appeal, and moral ambiguity. She’s the one whose motives you question throughout – and can never quite get a handle on. Personally, I wouldn’t have named her Gilda – the title Rita Hayworth character isn’t really a femme fatale at all – but it works.
The films narrative structure comes at us in bits and pieces – compact narrative pieces, each named after a supporting character, who we learn more about in the segment, while adding a little bit more to what we know about Cristi, Gilda or both. Porumboiu has constructed a complex puzzle box of a narrative, where nothing is really clear. Slowly, pieces start falling into place – although other than Magda (a terrific Rodica Lazar), as Cristi’s boss, even more corrupt than he is, the supporting characters never really feel like anything other than pawns to be moved around.
I suppose if you want to be generous, you could argue that Porumboiu is making a movie about the surveillance state – where no matter what we do, there is always someone watching, gathering information to be used against us later. But that’s stretching things a little. For the most part, The Whistlers is precisely what it appears to be – a twisty, turny film noir, that is at times nearly impossible to follow as individual characters motives change from scene to scene, and each new turn puts everything in a different perspective. It’s a fine little noir on that level – even if from Porumboiu, you may expect a little bit more.

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