Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers, his first feature made outside his native Romania, has dialogue in Romanian, Spanish, English…and El Silbo.
What is El Silbo? It’s a language used on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, consisting entirely of whistled sounds. The practice is not as uncommon as it seems; variations occur in parts of West Africa, and in villages in France, Turkey, Mexico, India, Nepal, and New Guinea. Even Native Americans have used whistling to communicate, as seen in a sequence from John Ford’s The Searchers that appears in Porumboiu’s film.
Ten years ago, Porumboiu saw a TV report on La Gomera and its whistling language, and it struck him as a great device for a crime story involving deception, double crosses, surveillance, and surreptitious communication between the protagonists. Thus was born The Whistlers, his homage to classic film noir, but pitched at a different frequency.
The story centers on Cristi (Vlad Ivanov, the captain in Porumboiu’s acclaimed 2009 drama Police, Adjective), a world-weary Bucharest police detective who may have succumbed to the temptation of a big score. On his arrival on La Gomera, he immediately teams up with the sultry Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a femme fatale deeply immersed in a scheme to purloin a cache of laundered money. To help pull off the heist, Cristi takes lessons in the whistling language from the local lowlifes, just some of the vipers who populate this very twisty tale.
In preparation for his first genre film, Porumboiu “went back to look at the classic noirs. I am a big fan of The Night of the Hunter and The Lady from Shanghai. And I saw movies that I haven’t seen for a long time, like The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep, which was a big influence for this one—I like it a lot. Afterwards I tried to see old classics like Double Indemnity and Laura, and more and more in the last year I watched Hitchcock. So that was a part of my influence. And after the shooting, I realized that two of my favorite films, The Conversation and Blow-Up, had an influence on this film.”
The complex time structure of The Whistlers is a decisive change for Porumboiu, whose previous films have generally been straightforward and deliberately paced. “If you asked me five years ago if I would ever use a flashback in my films, I would have said no,” he reveals. “But I wanted to have this process of learning to put it in the center of the film. When [Cristi] learns the language, he starts to look at his past and to discover things. So to have this double movement, I arrived at this chapter. I did that also in Infinite Football [his 2018 documentary about a bureaucrat’s nostalgia for the football games of his youth]. We start with football, and after that you see what he’s doing in life—we correlate the rules of the games with his bureaucratic life. At that point I was working on the script of The Whistlers, so I was thinking a lot about structure and how it works. I like it very much and I want to continue this type of film.”
The lead character in Police, Adjective was also named Cristi (but played by a different actor). There, he was an idealist battling a corrupt system. “I said, how do we find that character 10 years after Police, Adjective?” Porumboiu explains. “Police, Adjective has a certain type of ideology which for me can’t work in the longer term. So I said to Vlad, okay, I want to have this character 10 years later in a completely different world and completely lost. I was writing with him in my head. He did a lot of the casting with me—I wanted him surrounded by very powerful characters, even in terms of the faces.”
Porumboiu is part of a group of Romanian filmmakers who earned international acclaim beginning in 2005. They include Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Aurora), Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Graduation), Radu Muntean (Tuesday, After Christmas), and Radu Jude (The Happiest Girl in the World). Porumboiu himself broke through in 2006 with 12:08 East of Bucharest, a deadpan satire of provincial politics.
Asked about that sudden Romanian new wave, Porumboiu responds, “It’s more like a generation than a group, because we didn’t have something programmatic behind us. It’s a generation of young filmmakers that started to make good movies at a certain point, a generation that was changed by the revolution, what was happening in Romania. I was a teenager in ’89, and my colleagues were maybe 18 years old or 20 max. It was a group of people that tried to define the world in which they were living in—and themselves. These were films dealing with Romania in the present and the past, and it was something new for the international scene—Romania was not so known in cinema. It was called the Romanian new wave, but at the same time each one of us in the end has his own voice. I think the films have been quite different in recent years.”
The new wave auteurs are also united because Bucharest is a relatively small city and Romania is a small country, Porumboiu says. “Cristian Mungiu and I have kids in the same school, so sometimes we meet each other in the morning. And from time to time I see Radu Muntean, Cristi Puiu, Radu Jude.”
Porumboiu says the current cinemagoing scene in Romania consists of “a lot of American films. Romanian cinema is present, but not in big numbers. For the opening of Joker there were 95,000 entries, which is huge. The people there are going more to see American films and they know the stars very well. If I want to do a Romanian film [on that level], I would need to use an American star.”
The director laments that “the Romanians over the years have lost the connection with the Romanian cinema, they’ve lost their habit to go to theaters. So now it’s more a young generation. Most of the time they go for escapism—they don’t want to see what’s happening. At the same time, it’s very difficult to recover. In the ’80s there was an embargo on American films, and Romanian films could do 16 million, huge numbers. But two generations lost the habit of going to the theater. It’s very difficult to recuperate, and now we have all these other platforms.
“Our network of old cinemas in the downtowns of the cities, they didn’t invest in them. They were old buildings that the communists took from people. And after the revolution, they [were returned] to the families before the communists… From the market point of view, it’s important to build something there [to attract people], maybe a restaurant. In the year 2000, they came in with the multiplexes in malls, and this saved the industry a little… But this ancient network of cinemas is disappearing. There are a few art deco theaters from the ’30s left, but they are almost falling down.”
Porumboiu says he enjoyed filming outside Romania for the first time, particularly in the Canary Islands. “It was beyond the language—I had a fascination for that island… I liked it a lot. The lighting is different, in contrast to Bucharest. And now I have the taste to shoot more and more outside Romania.”
The 44-year-old director says he has several projects in mind, films that could bring him to France and even the United States. “I would like to do more work abroad. I have some subjects like that. But it would need to feel necessary. I see it more for the subject. I’m following all the time my instinct. Every time I do a movie, I feel it’s important for me to make it at that time.”
Magnolia Pictures opens The Whistlers in theaters on February 28.