For the last few decades, Romanian directors have been at the forefront of what’s been dubbed “slow cinema,” a kind of overtly anti-Hollywood dialing down of editorial pace and narrative precision. Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective) was a leading proponent of this movement. It’s surprising, and for this writer terrific, that Porumboiu has decided with The Whistlers that maybe Hollywood isn’t such a terrible place to draw from.
Ostensibly, the film is a crime drama with some surrealism added for good measure. We’re introduced to a police officer named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) who sets foot off a ferry on the rocky island of Gomera. There he meets an instructor in the language of whistling, a coded form of communication indigenous to the island that requires one to place a curled finger in the mouth and blow sounds that echo different letters. Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a stunning femme fatale who would fit perfectly in a 1940s noir, pairs with Cristi to help break corrupt businessman Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) from police control in order to help get millions of Euros back for crime lord Paco (Agustí Villaronga).
Told in a series of chapters, with echoes to Hitchcock’s Psycho and an in-film section where the characters watch John Ford’s The Searchers, the movie adds plenty of Hollywoodisms to the Romanian aesthetic. What’s most pleasing is how the genre tropes actually elevate interest in tiny local details. Offering concessions to things such as plot and narrative drive that Romanian cinema often eschews creates an effective rumination on human behavior.
That said, the film still takes its time and isn’t exactly ripe for multiplex adoration. The Whistlers is a hybrid between art and pleasure, humor and drama, where the lines between these divisions are constantly shifting. Superficially preposterous, the film has an intensity that’s energizing, making slow cinema entertaining at last.