From one of Romania’s best-known directors, ‘The Whistlers’ is… something, alright. Romanian cinema has recently hit a groundswell of talent and filmmaking. Dubbed the Romanian New Wave, it stretches from the beginning of the century and continues now, with filmmakers like Cristian Mungiu, Cristian Nemescu, Radu Jude Cristi Puiu and more. Films like Graduation, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu have hit international success, and the strange mix of genre play and post-communist ideals have taken a new ideology to new heights. One of the other great filmmakers of this era, Corneliu Porumboiu, has come to the New York Film Festival with his latest feature, The Whistlers. And it marks what might be a fully incomprehensible entry in this school of filmmaking.
The film’s opening involves Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” playing over our “hero,” Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), as he rides to the Canary Islands on a boat. As a passenger. This film doesn’t get any less subtle from there. From uncomfortable sex scenes to disappointingly simplistic commentary on politics to the eye-roll worthy references to Hitchcock and The Searchers (noted by full clips from The Searchers), it just feels so unnecessary. And the film doesn’t attempt to get much deeper than the surface.
Bucharest cop Cristi is arriving in the Canary Islands to learn the whistling language of El Silbo in order to pull off a jailbreak. A former lover and some foes greet him, but his home in Bucharest isn’t filled with any people he prefers. Everyone is against Cristi, including Cristi himself. But as he learns and utilizes El Silbo (a real language made of whistling sounds), Cristi finds himself doubting what’s happening in the world around him. This, of course, leads to dozens of double-crosses and plot twists and sting operations and false confessions and other conventions of crime movies. But this time with comedy!
What would have been nicer would be a film that actually tried to make us sympathize with Cristi instead of expecting us to inherently. Every character feels bland and one-note, and even the “twists” of the script are seen coming from miles away. Leaving aside inspired imagery and some clever uses of whistling, the film feels empty. Empty of thought and emotion and comedy and character and more. It feels like a greatest hits album by a cover band.
The Whistlers is Romania’s entry for the Oscars this year and will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures on February 28th, 2020.