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The Whistlers: A Film With A Language All Its Own

January 1, 1970

Have you heard sweet bird songs recently? How was the chirping? Are you sure it was birds? It could’ve been grifters transmitting secret messages to each other, as in the case of The Whistlers.

The film is a feature-length dramedy/heist by Corneliu Porumboiu, a Romanian writer and director. It is presented in four languages: Romanian, English, Spanish and whistling. The project is a Eurimages co-production between the countries of Romania, France and Germany and the action takes place in Bucharest and then in the Canary Islands of Spain.

Before we go further, be warned! There are spoilers ahead.

The movie stars two Romanians; Vlad Ivanov as a crooked, middle-aged cop named Cristi and Catrinel Marlon as Gilda, Cristi’s maybe-or-maybe-not love interest. Gilda gives off a very Rita Hayworth vibe. Auteur Porumboiu sneaks in a couple American movies within The Whistlers; various characters watch snippets from U.S. film history, one being a John Wayne Western about cowboys and Indians, the second a noir. He uses these films to set the tone for the forthcoming chases and cat-and-mouse games.

Act One jumps around with time and place; Porumboiu shows us mysterious parts of the story and then backtracks to teach us more about them. The set-up keeps you guessing why a man lands on a large, quiet, rocky island and what will happen next. Colorful placards onscreen introduce us to the players.

During the film, we wonder if Gilda is using Cristi as a pawn after inflicting him with her very obvious feminine wiles. The idea is that he will help her run off with her boyfriend Zsolt, with $30 million in stolen Spanish mob money. Zsolt is a “spoiled boy” whose family runs a mattress factory. Cristi, his co-worker Alin and his boss, Magda surveil the factory. Magda has Cristi’s apartment bugged with cameras as well. Cristi is a double agent with ties to Zsolt, and Magda and Alin are ready to frame Zsolt for drugs to bring him in.

Opera music is a throughline in this film, as is a place called The Opera Hotel, where the grifters sometimes operate. The hotel “educates” its guests about this form of classical music by blaring it from vinyl in the small lobby. Someone there is not who they seem.

In Act Two, Gilda brings Cristi to the Canary Islands, where he meets her mob bosses and learns their secret language of whistling (in this language, tones and inflections replace letters). The conceit mostly works in this film with a structure we’ve seen before: Crooked cop plays both sides, but falls for “the girl.” Crooked cop has a mother who interferes in his double-agenting work. Crooked cop works everyone in order to save the object of his restrained lust, but is she playing him?

Porumboiu sneaks in a couple diabolical references, too. A surveillance camera known as “camera six” starts at timecode 06:06:06 and we also hear a sequence from O Fortuna of Carmina Burana at the beginning of the film’s final scene, which is, dare I say, very Before Sunrise (with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy).

In the latter part of Act Three, Gilda finds Cristi after they are separated and instructs him to meet her on another continent in a month’s time. She has a showdown with Magda and a gun goes off. You have to watch the film to find out if Cristi and Gilda reunite abroad.

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