' ' Cinema Romantico: The Whistlers

Monday, May 04, 2020

The Whistlers

There is a moment in “The Whistlers” when a dirty Romanian cop, Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), and some gangsters have occupied a warehouse on La Gomera in the Canary Islands. There is an unexpected knock at the door. They answer, finding an American film director, explaining he is scouting locations, wondering if he can examine the warehouse interior. If this might suggest the moment when “The Whistlers” transforms into a movie within a movie, the truth is, it is already a movie, in a manner of speaking, portraying the Romanian surveillance system not simply as the state monitoring its citizens but as a kind of omnipresent movie camera itself, evoking life as reality TV where you are always ‘on’. Look at how director Corneliu Porumboiu frames the gangsters when the American director appears, in a wide shot and spread out, the blank backdrop rendering them as actors in some sort of storefront theater. Not for nothing is one of the few places the characters can communicate without a watchful eye the movie theater, a perversion of the old Godard line about cinema being truth twenty-four times per second.

The title refers to a whistled register of Spanish called El Silbo, used by some inhabitants of La Gomera to communicate across great distances. In this case, the gangsters will teach Cristi to whistle El Silbo to evade the never-ending surveillance to aid their efforts to spring a pal, Zsolt, from the clink. This is such a neat idea that it’s disappointing Porumboiu does not explore it further, less interested in the mechanics of El Silbo and Cristi learning them then as a kind of metaphor for the movie’s inspection of linguistics. (It might be a Romanian movie centered on a Spanish language but much of the dialogue is English.) A hotel called the Opera factors into the plot, yes, eventually, though the hotel clerk, not to mention Porumboiu, mostly get a rise out of forcing arias upon visitors and the audience; vibrato is a language too. A sex scene, meanwhile, between Cristi and Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), his gangland go-between, becomes its own weird means of risqué communique, like “Citizenfour” crossed with “Last Tango in Paris”, happening only to throw off the police state watching outside his apartment and in. When Cristi gets a little too rambunctious, Gilda pushes him back down, an ersatz impassioned now now.

Whether we are meant to laugh at this scene is hard to know, epitomizing “The Whistlers’” drollness. When Poromboiu cuts to the surveillance agent watching Cristi and Gilda get physical, there is pointedly no reaction, comical, titillated or otherwise. It’s only when the movie cuts to the next scene, Cristi in the Canary Islands, that we realize her act of nominal passion was paramount in getting him there. That is when I chortled, the moment evoking the old Bob Newhart idea about a joke you laugh at in the car on the way home, an apt description of “The Whistlers” itself, a movie to be worked out in the car ride on the way home. In fact, the movie does not build to anything, despite teasing out a possible romance between our two bed play actors, so much as stretch everything out, suddenly stopping in the middle of itself over and over again to throw up an intertitle with a character’s name and then either flash back or flash forward, expanding the puzzle in the midst of putting it together rather than adding pieces to it and getting closer to completion.

If the Romanian New Wave, of which Porumboiu is part, has generally eschewed music to heighten the verité, Porumboiu has occasionally employed music, albeit in very specific, interesting ways. His “Police Adjective”, to which “The Whistlers” is very much a companion piece, involved a conversation about song lyrics that essentially defined the movie’s relationship to the nature of bureaucratic language. “The Whistlers”, on the other hand, opens with an extended passage in a car roaring along scenic Canary Island roads as Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” blares. It feels more like Tarantino, frankly, a moment with no need to justify itself beyond its manifest coolness. Indeed, the la la las of the song have always sounded to me like that kind of indispensable pop music poetry, inherently without meaning, more about eliciting a striking sensation, which may as well define “The Whistlers” itself.

1 comment:

mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

I need to see it.