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Romanian Caper 'The Whistlers': A Surprisingly Fast, Peppy, Complex Tune

Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) threatens to send bullets whistling through the air in <em>The Whistlers</em>.
Vlad Cioplea
Magnolia Pictures
Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) threatens to send bullets whistling through the air in The Whistlers.

The films of the Romanian New Wave are above all Romanian; most of them barely acknowledge a world outside the country's borders. The walloping beat of Iggy Pop's "The Passenger" immediately announces that The Whisperers is up to something different. So does the site of the opening scene: the Canary Islands.

The location's sunniness is a shock to eyes accustomed to Bucharest gray, and another signal that writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu intends this movie to be brighter and literally more colorful than his previous ones. The Whisperers is not quite a Hollywood-style caper, but by Romanian-cinema standards it qualifies as a romp.

At least the man stepping off the ferry onto the island of La Gomera (the film's original title) looks familiar. He's Vlad Ivanov, who appeared in Porumboiu's Police, Adjective and other notable recent Romanian films. He plays Cristi, a crooked cop on an unusual mission. He's traveled to the Canaries to learn silbo, a whistled version of Spanish used by gangsters to perplex law enforcement officers. Cristi doesn't speak Spanish, so his silbo lessons are given in English.

Cristi is no John Wayne, whose The Searchers is woven into the movie's intricate skein of narrative flashbacks and cinematic allusions. But he does develop a certain swagger, especially after a roll in bed with a lovely femme-possibly-fatale with the movie-movie name of Gilda (Catrinel Marlon). Each character is introduced with his or her name on a screen-filling block of color. Gilda's, of course, is red.

As might be expected, the passion of Cristi and Gilda's liaison is tempered with irony. She's delivering a message from her criminal paramour, and poses as a call girl so as to dispel suspicion. She goes all the way in the role because she knows Cristi is under video surveillance. (Her gratuitous nudity also serves as a homage to the 1960s European films that stormed the barricades of the sexual revolution.)

No one is above suspicion in this scenario, which depicts a friskier version of the petty, self-dealing bureaucracies seen in many Romanian films. When Cristi's boss, Magda (Rodica Lazar), wants to have a candid talk with him, she always escorts him out of her office. She knows it's bugged, although we don't know why. Is Magda just overzealous — she tries to get Cristi to frame someone by planting cocaine — or has she made her own dirty alliance with mobsters?

Many people are implicated in off-the-books transactions in this movie, which turns on money-laundering and a planned jail break. Even Cristi's pious mother gets involved in the financial gambits, although with the best of intentions. She helps the church block a weary Romanian's road to riches, much as the government did in the director's 2015 The Treasure.

The Whistlers echoes the themes of other previous Porumboiu films, notably communication — multilingual now, but still vexed — and surveillance. When Cristi and Gilda first meet, they're shot from the perspective of the cops tailing one or both of them, the same vantage point as much of Police, Adjective.

What's different about this movie's style is the pacing. Long takes have been replaced by quick cuts, as multiple characters scurry through a plot maze that offers enough complications for a dozen slow-burn Romanian comic dramas. If the film goes faster and farther than its predecessors, it does so at the expense of depth. That's intentional, though. Rather than end in the usual disillusionment, The Whistlers cashes out with a coda that fully indulges illusion.

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Mark Jenkins reviews movies for, as well as for, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.