‘The Whistlers,’ a Romanian crime drama featuring, uh, whistling
Vlad Ivanov learning to whistle

La Gomera is the Romanian title for the new, fast-moving 97-minute film by director Corneliu Porumboiu, named after one of the Canary Islands, where an unusual whistling language, unique in the world, is practiced. In English, it’s The Whistlers.

It’s definitely a genre film—and beyond that, one could say it’s an homage to the genre itself. One thinks of its forebears in such films as Rififi, The Big Sleep, or The Maltese Falcon.

It’s an über-noir police procedural, cynical, corrupt, with police spying, watching, following and eavesdropping. No one is to be believed or trusted through all the double-dealing, drug money and money laundering, Euros cached away in dusty basements and bedroom suites, brother ratting out brother, planted evidence, false testimony, treachery, deception, informing, faked confessions, ambushes and abductions, throat-slittings, gunfire with numerous people shot dead, attempted drowning, attempted death by speeding automobile, suicide, a vial of poison, and lovely simple things like a note hidden in a bouquet of tulips and a secret tryst in a seedy movie theatre showing a John Wayne Western (The Searchers). I could go on.

There’s nary a good guy in sight. The generous use of flashbacks also contributes to making an untimely hash out of the sequencing. Is there redeeming social value to the film? Hmmm, maybe not so much. The only conclusion one can come to is that humanity is a miserable lot indeed. It’s a noir world.

Not too far into the film, Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) is teaching detective Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) the basic elements of the whistling language (although it’s not entirely clear how, why, where and when as a Romanian she learned it). She uses a blackboard to write out the individual sounds, intonations, vowels and consonants. At just about that point I was thinking to myself, What we really need is a chalkboard where we can map out the intricate relationships among the characters, who’s on whose side, who’s betraying whom, who’s ultimately loyal to…..

The problem is that unless losing yourself in the deep mysteries of the noir genre is absolutely your thing, and you love wandering in the maze of false clues, contradictions, and doublecrossings, you really won’t even start to care about these people at all. You begin to wonder what kind of world these people grew up in: Most seem too young to have developed their full characters under the Ceausescu regime, but the repellent atmosphere of a second-rate autocracy still hovers in the putrid air. Cristi’s father was apparently a Communist functionary and no stranger to the occasional bribe, although Cristi proudly defends him by saying he never stole!

The Whistlers is set in modern times—everyone carries a cell phone—but with all the cheesy surveillance apparatus and practices from the past that modern life just about everywhere now embraces (though in more digital format). A couple of scenes take place on a largely deserted film set in Bucharest where obviously at one time American-style Western movies were shot, underscoring the homage to film culture that this Romanian entry represents (it screened at Cannes last year as Romania’s submission).

The film features a fine cast of Romanian and Spanish actors largely unfamiliar to Western viewers. Rodica Lazar is chilling as the calculating police chief Magda. Drab Bucharest, both exteriors and even drearier, dated interiors, is balanced off by the scenic Canary Islands. We take an almost other-worldly boat ride through the entrancing channels between islands, and wind up on lush mountaintops with expensive villas, swimming pools and palm trees. You would barely know you were not that far off the coast of Africa.

The soundtrack is, rather strangely, operatic. The new management of a motel in Bucharest has it blasting through the premises. Even I, a lifelong operalover, found it grating and inappropriate. Someone starts whistling a tune while driving in a car: It’s “Mack the Knife” from Threepenny Opera, shortly followed by an exaggeratedly stylized version sung in Bertolt Brecht’s original Weimar German version by Ute Lemper. The choice of music, and reference to 3PO, clearly underlines the sinister, amoral nature of the story.

An unexpected and unlikely love story is folded into this sour mess, between the film’s two most sympathetic characters. The timbre of this affair is perhaps best characterized by Gilda’s ambiguous statement to Cristi, “Forget what happened in Bucharest. I did it for the surveillance cameras.” (This is evidently no “We’ll always have Paris” moment.) It may offer some feeling of redemption for some viewers. The denouement takes place in, of all places, the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, a romantic tourist lightshow destination with Strauss waltzes booming through the sound system, but whatever, I’m not sure I bought it.

Catrinel Marlon

Having said all of which, for me the film is saved—and for this it’s worth seeing—by the introduction it provides to the whistling language of the Canary Islands, called “el silbo.” Now, most languages, I assume, incorporate some whistling tropes into their repertory of communicative sounds. Every pretty girl who passes a construction site is familiar with a few of them, but there are many others too. A unique whistle can summon a taxi. Many families have a special whistle they use to find each other in a crowd. Whistling the tune of a well-known song can also “say” the implied words that accompany the music. There are even professional whistlers who use their voice as a musical instrument.

I had naively assumed that this film would incorporate some of these kinds of vocal gimmickry. But I had no idea that this language, developed by ancient inhabitants of the Canary Islands, can actually replicate everything that can be spoken in the verbal language. One can whistle miles across a vast mountain canyon and say, “Zsolt is in the hospital, Room 3, guarded by two cops,” or “Meet me in a month’s time at 5 o’clock at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore,” and any such complete, detailed information you wish. I suspect for other viewers too this will be a fascinating revelation.

Perhaps this subject called out to director Porumboiu because Romanian is also (as you can tell from its name) a Romance language that emerged in Eastern Europe, surrounded by Slavic languages, owing to the Roman Empire that conquered these lands on the Black Sea. If Romania was the empire’s eastern frontier, or at least the easternmost place where they actually left their language on the ground, then silbo is, in a sense, its western frontier.

The languages used in the film are English, Romanian, Spanish, and silbo. Subtitles are provided.

The Whistlers opens in theaters Fri., Feb. 28. This might be a good one to catch sometime on Netflix. If anyone ever comes up with that diagram of who’s who in this film, I’d like to see it. The trailer can be seen here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.

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