Say “the Romanian New Wave” to folks who tend to order their cinema off-menu, and they’ll happily regale you with tales of long takes, deliberate paces, dour perspectives and a serious distrust of authority. They’ll also tell you that the country has produced some of the most complex, captivating movies of the past 15 years, and they’d be correct. Like sushi or Brian Eno’s solo albums, the bounty that’s come from the Eastern European nation’s post-Ceaușescu generation of filmmakers is an acquired taste; once that taste has been acquired, however, you want to gorge on these often minimalist, vérité-influenced dramas and bone-dry comedies. Watch 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) or Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), and you understand how scenes involving little more than extended conversations (or pregnant silences) can turn into the most tense, compelling sequences imaginable. Or how, in the hands of a director like Corneliu Porumboiu, three men arguing over dictionary definitions — the climactic “set piece” that concludes his po-faced 2009 procedural Police, Adjective — can feel as thrilling as a Western gunfight.
What you won’t usually hear fans wax poetic about are how these celebrated Romanian movies feature, say, actual gunfights, or violent gangsters, or femme fatales with a knack for seducing assassins. You’ll find all of these things in Porumboiu’s The Whistlers, however, along with a choice Iggy Pop needle drop (“The Passenger”), clips from John Ford’s The Searchers and a cameo from Singapore’s garish Garden by the Bay light show. Anyone expecting a neo-realistic look at the existential crisis of a society gutted by years of Communist tyranny may think they’ve wandered into the wrong arthouse. Yet this sideways take on a cops v. Mob tale is still very much in the New Wave wheelhouse, and pushes forward a number of philosophical themes and preoccupations that the writer-director has wrestled with in his more reserved previous work. It’s a pulpy crime movie, and a Corneliu Porumboiu movie. The two concepts, it turns out, are not mutually exclusive.
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We meet Cristi (Vlad Ivanov, holding down the Romanian New Wave MVP title for 13 years and counting) boarding a ferry for the Canary Islands. Arriving at the Spanish hotspot, he’s driven to a villa-like residence and met by a thuggish criminal (Cristóbal Pinto). The goal: Have Cristi learn a “whistling language” developed by the locals and used by the region’s gangsters to communicate with each other in code. Once he’s got that down, this visitor is supposed to help break one of their associates, a man named Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), out of jail.
There are a few obstacles in his way. For starters, Cristi is a cop who has ties to the convict that involve his own crooked legacy back home. Also, he’s not the only Romanian in town. There’s also Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a brunette with a seemingly endless supply of form-fitting red dresses. She’s Zsolt’s girlfriend. She’s also met Cristi before. “Forget what happened in Bucharest,” Gilda tells him. “That was just for the surveillance cameras.” But was it? A flashback detailing the sordid affair she’s referring to only muddies the waters further. So do a number of other escalating vignettes — should a character mention an unfamiliar name, it’s inevitable that a colorful title card appears and kicks off a whole new tangent involving said person — that keep pushing us further back into a past full of power, corruption and lies.
And there are more recognizable genre elements on the horizon, including a vengeful kingpin (Agustí Villaronga), a police sergeant (Rodica Lazar) who has her own tainted history, and the revelation of a double-cross that has its own set of consequences. Paranoia reigns supreme; a whole network of hidden cameras and constant clandestine observation from various parties keeps everybody on edge, and everybody covering their tracks. Even the novelty of listening to tough guys and unsavory characters issue orders and coordinate murders via shrill, singsong whistling, with each tone standing in for various consonants and vowels, starts to take on a menacing air — and eventually, a sense of fatalistic poignancy.
It’s not a coincidence that Marlon’s noirish mystery woman shares the same name as Rita Hayworth’s doomed dame in 1946’s Gilda, or that Ivanov’s police detective meets up with his superior in a theater where that aforementioned John Wayne movie is playing (and also features unseen enemies communicating via nature calls), or that the violent showdown eventually takes place on an abandoned film set. “All you need to make a movie,” Godard once famously declared, “is a girl and a gun,” and Porumboiu seems hellbent on proving that the maxim applies to his particular nouvelle vague as well. But he’s also slipped in notions about the malleability and unreliability of language — the one overarching constant in his oeuvre to date — as well as the way histories, whether personal or social, can be conveniently bent when circumstances demand it. That a Romanian film would suggest all men are corruptible and all systems are rotten to the core is not a surprise, given the way this particular movement has implicitly/explicitly used the repercussions of living under longtime constant repression as its primary subject. That it would do so in the form of Elmore Leonard-lite crime story, however, is a shock. A pleasant, pleasurable shock.
So, for that matter, is watching Ivanov — best known as the slimy abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days — slipping into the tarnished-knight role and lending it an earthy, well-earned gravitas. (Think Ed Harris playing the Man With No Name. It’s that kind of mood.) Ditto Marlon’s riff on the black-widow roles of noirs past, the way Tudor Mircea’s cinematography alternates between signature Euro-grimness and picture-postcard beauty rendered in primary colors, and basking in a luxurious ending which may or may not be real. What The Whistlers lacks in terms of the rigor associated with its creator’s back catalog, it makes up for as a deadpan genre piece with a sly jab. It’s a serious work of pulp friction.