February 27, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
Romanian with subtitles
Culture Representation: Set in Romania and the Canary Islands’ La Gomera, this thriller has an all-white cast of characters portraying law enforcement and criminals.
Culture Clash: The characters have conflicts over drug smuggling, police corruption and stolen €10 million in cash.
Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people who like suspenseful crime stories and European arthouse films.
Drug dealers, corrupt cops, a femme fatale—these are all characteristics of numerous movies about the criminal underworld. However, the Romanian film “The Whistlers” has a unique angle because most of the characters involved the dirty dealing communicate in code by whistles that sound like birds. They use this form of communication for their most secretive messages. It’s a language called El Silbo that they’ve learned by traveling to a mysterious place at the Canary Islands’ La Gomera, off the coast of Spain. The El Silbo whistling language exists in real life, and “The Whistlers” writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu was inspired to do this film when he heard about El Silbo.
At the beginning of the film, the central character Cristi Anghelache (played by Vlad Ivanov) is seen arriving in La Gomera. He’s an amoral Bucharest police officer who’s gotten involved in drug trafficking, by taking some of the cash involved in the drug deals he’s supposed to investigate and by becoming a trusted ally to a powerful crime lord who engineers the drug deals. After arriving in La Gomera, Cristi is driven to a secluded house, where he’s met by Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a beautiful woman with a lot of secrets.
Gilda tells him, “The package arrived safely,” before showing Cristi his guest room. She also tells him cryptically, “Forget about what happened in Bucharest. I did it for the surveillance cameras.” It turns out that Cristi is at the house in La Gomera to learn to whistle in the El Silbo langauge. Exactly how and why he ended up there is revealed as the story unfolds.
There are many twists and turns to the plot, but it’s enough to say without revealing spoiler information that many of the characters have hidden agendas and could be involved in double-crossing each other at any moment. They are often under surveillance of hidden cameras. And most of them are looking for or want the €10 million in cash that went missing during a massive drug bust.
Besides Cristi and Gilda, the other people involved in this web of lies and intrigue are:
Paco (played by Agustí Villaronga), the powerful crime boss who’s the leader of a drug-trafficking ring that Cristi has been investigating and colluding with at the same time.
Zsolt Nagy (played by Sabin Tambrea), Paco’s trusted right-hand man, who’s been plotting with Gilda to betray Paco.
Magda (played by Rodica Lazar), Cristi’s tough and corrupt boss, who wants Cristi to help her frame Zsolt by planting cocaine in his possession so that Zsolt can be arrested and interrogated.
Kiko (played by Antonio Buil), the sleazy henchman who is often tasked with teaching El Silbo to people in the crime ring.
Mama (played by Julieta Szönyi), Cristi’s mother who is heartbroken over knowing that her son has gotten involved with criminal activities, but she remains loyal to him and acts in what she thinks will be in his best interests.
All of these characters are shown in flashbacks and present-day scenes. People who prefer linear structures in movies will have to pay extra attention in “The Whistlers” to what’s a flashback and what isn’t a flashback, in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Gilda is somewhat of a stereotypical femme fatale who uses her sexuality to get what she wants. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when viewers find out that she’s married to Paco and has been having sex with at least two other men who are involved in the drug-trafficking ring. Meanwhile, Cristi’s mother finds €50,000 in cash that Cristi has hidden in her cellar. She knows that it’s dirty money, so she donates it to a local church. That donation sets off a series of events that culminates in secrets being exposed and alliances being tested.
“The Whistlers” is an intriguing story that’s elevated by artsy and gorgeous cinematography by Tudor Mircea. (A scene that takes place during a light show at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands is particularly effective.) The film’s ending might not be much of a surprise, but the guessing games that the movie plays on viewers should be enjoyable to people who like a good mystery.
Magnolia Pictures will release “The Whistlers” in select U.S. cinemas on February 28, 2020.