The Whistlers: Coded Messages, by Scott Nye
Corneliu Porumboiu’s work can fit many off-putting descriptors – slow, meandering, talky, lacking in plot or character insight, to name a few – and whether one agrees with those conclusions, his films tend to be a tough sell if you’re not rather immediately on his wavelength. But almost due to their minimalist nature, they could at least not be called terribly confusing…that is, until The Whistlers. His latest film, which premiered at Cannes last year, is jarring from the start for Porumboiu enthusiasts, beginning with a blast of music (Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”) and – *gasp* – actual montage editing, tracking the arrival of a mysterious man into a shipping port. What follows over the proceeding hour and a half are a series of double-crosses, flashbacks, and ellipses that are spare enough to bewilder even the most engaged audience, yet enticing enough to compel the one he’s probably after.
The mysterious man is Cristi (Vlad Ivanov)i, a police detective from Romania who has come to the Spanish island of La Gomera, ostensibly to investigate criminal activity there, but whose motives may be more personal. He embeds himself with a criminal syndicate, learning in the process a whistling language they’ve developed to communicate in the open amidst unsuspecting authorities who think them merely to be birds. On the island, he meets Gilda (Cartinel Marlon), a gorgeous woman with her own agenda, only wait, he doesn’t meet her at all, turns out he knew her in Romania, and perhaps she is the reason he’s there after all?
A series of narrative detours eventually uncovers all of this, though I’ll confess it took me two viewings to suss it all out. What carries it through are actually the usual Porumboiu touches, even if their context is wildly different – small misunderstandings, dryly funny behavior, a sense of feeble distress beneath characters who affect a sense of wider purpose. Whereas his characters in the past couple films seem to be fighting desperately against stasis – their own and that of the film in which they’re trapped – those in The Whistlers are trying to keep their center amidst the chaos. Cristi, Gilda, and Cristi’s captain, Magda (Rodica Lazar) all have separate aims, and all believe themselves to be one step ahead of everyone else, and of the plot Porumboiu has engineered, but someone must have the upper hand. Their distress feels more familiar, wrapped as it is inside a familiar genre, but the way they express it as a series of small power-grabs is pure Porumboiu.
Editor Roxana Szel, who has cut most of Porumboiu’s films, twists their rhythm to ideal ends here. It is not uncommon for a scene in his films to begin midway through whatever encounter they’re depicting, and gradually reveal what has led them there, an instinct that fits very well with the genre of the international crime thriller. The shape of this film has the sense of some delicate puzzle that only takes its final form when it is completed, and some final string is pulled that cinches it all together. In order to maintain this constant, elusive nature, each piece must suggest enough to maintain one’s curiosity, yet obscure enough to refuse comprehension. More than most other filmmakers, Porumboiu’s are difficult to summarize in single images, though his compositions are often arresting. Their relationship to one another builds over time, sliding in and out of place, building bridges and roads we cannot yet see. We’re just the passenger.