Rating: (4 stars)
Featuring a femme fatale, a corrupt cop and an eclectic soundtrack that opens with Iggy Pop’s 1977 “The Passenger,” the Romanian crime drama “The Whistlers” includes elements that could have been plucked from almost any Tarantino-esque bloodbath. But coming from director Corneliu Porumboiu, whose last film was the slow-as-molasses soccer documentary “Infinite Football,” it is a drastic — and exciting — departure from expectations.
The ornate plot revolves around Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a veteran police detective who has agreed to help a group of mobsters spring a big-time criminal from a Bucharest prison. The escape plan is hatched in the Canary Islands, where Cristi meets his co-conspirators, learning to communicate by means of Silbo Gomero, an esoteric whistling language native to the island of La Gomera (the film’s Romanian title).
Of course, there is money is at stake — a cool $30 million — but Cristi is motivated by something else: the beautiful Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), who recruited him for the job, and whose history with the police officer is, let’s say, complicated.
Ivanov is perfect in the role of world-weary detective, and his casting is also weirdly apt. In Porumboiu’s 2009 film “Police, Adjective,” the actor played another cop: a police chief who, in a climactic scene, spends nearly 20 minutes defining the word “conscience” for the benefit of one of his underlings (coincidentally also named Cristi). Such a long, patience-testing sequence would seem tonally out of place here, but “The Whistlers” plays, in some ways, like an extravagant — and sobering — sequel to the earlier film. Here, the director returns to a fascination with both language and corruption, the difference being that the moral arbiter of the previous film is now someone who has fallen from grace.
For anyone who knows Porumboiu’s other films well, there’s plenty of resonance to be found between them and “The Whistlers.” Newcomers, for their part, will enjoy plenty of dazzling scenery and plot twists in a humorous film that simultaneously revels in action movie tropes while slyly subverting them. Even when the director resorts to outright cliche — the climactic use of “Carmina Burana,” for instance, one of the most overused pieces of music in cinema — it’s clear that he’s commenting on its familiarity. At the same time, though, Porumboiu finds a way to make it new again, incorporating the music into an immensely effective visual spectacle.
Fans of the director may be a little mystified by what at first seems like something of a commercial sellout, by a director known for more challenging material. And indeed, “The Whistlers” has more than enough sex and violence to satisfy the average action movie fan. But dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find a mother lode of meaning just below the surface.
It’s almost like a whistle that, to the untrained ear, sounds like a bird, but to those fluent in Silbo Gomero, is rich with additional meaning.