Though he’s been a productive filmmaker for the last twenty years or so, I wasn’t familiar with writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu’s work until The Whistlers, a heist film that manages to entertain with plenty of originality even if it gets itself tied up in a few narrative knots here and there. Ostensibly about Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a Romanian police investigator who’s a double agent for Spanish organized crime based in the Canary Islands, Porumboiu takes more than a few liberties with how the story is pieced together as well as who exactly we’re supposed to be rooting for.
Structured as a series of vignettes introduced with placards naming the character at the focus of each, there’s a lot that’s unclear about exactly what Cristi’s got himself into at first. Shortly after arriving on the islands, he’s greeted by the beautiful Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a femme fatale type who’s a lynchpin in the drama at hand as the only player who speaks both Romanian and Spanish. The two have a history together, having met back in Romania and playing off their connection (for the prying eyes of the surveillance they know is watching) as a john’s rendezvous with his high-end escort. Within the first twenty minutes or so, Porumboiu’s adventure already has the drama, witty rapport and certainly the sexiness to keep us curious about what else might be in store.
Cristi has arrived on the island to learn the secret code that the criminals use to communicate their illegal plans without the authorities listening in, an intricate language of whistling that carries across city streets and back-roads alike. He’s no natural, but soon Cristi can both understand and deliver the whistles, a skill he can’t let on to his bosses at the police station even as they begin interrogating members of the crime operation. Instead, he’s on hand to help break Gilda’s boyfriend, Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) out of lock-up after getting picked up for stealing millions of Euros by smuggling them out inside mattresses. None of this is revealed easily, and if you glance away for even a moment you might miss some connective tissue that Porumboiu uses later to help us make sense of it all.
By the film’s third act, Cristi is in over his head, with senior officers suspecting something is off with his involvement with Zsolt and his mother in Romania donating stolen money to the church in exchange for prayers over a son she’s worried might be gay. But the connection between he and Gilda persists, and even after a fairly brutal accident that leaves him with brain injuries, Cristi can still communicate with his accomplice via those birdsong whistles. The intricacies of exactly how the central heist will (or has) played out might be hard to follow, as the filmmaker seems to be a bit more concerned with getting clever about his structure rather than the integrity of his narrative. But for all that gets in the way of the “what” here, Porumboiu more than makes up for it with a certain gumption in the “how.” The Whistlers is filled with bright, bold colors and colorful, bold performances; this might not be your run-of-the-mill crime drama, but that makes it all the more engaging.