With his compatriots, Radu Jude, Cristian Mungiu and Crisit Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest, The Treasure) is one of the most prominent members of the Romanian New Wave, which have been instrumental in putting their country’s cinema on the world map over the last 15 years. His latest opus, The Whistlers, is a neo-noir thriller set mainly in La Gomera, the second smallest of Spain’s Canary Islands, where Cristi (Vlad Ivanov, Mungiu’s regular seen in Graduation and last year’s László Nemes Sunset), a corrupt Bucharest cop involved in drug money laundering, has been summoned by a local gangster. He is instructed to learn silbo gomero, a traditional whistling technique unique to the place, which will allow him to continue communicating with the mobsters and evade the surveillance of his police colleagues back home. At stake is finding a 30 million Euro loot from a heist committed by an imprisoned mafioso who is the only one to know where the money is hidden. All could work well if only Cristi would not fall for the stunning and mysterious Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a devious femme fatale with her own angle to the scheme.
“In all my films I have an obsession with language, explains Porumboiu. After I had finished Police, Adjective in 2009, I saw a TV show on this ancestral whistling language that is still taught today and was declared part of Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO ten years ago. I was fascinated by how these messages are coded and delivered through the island. The theory behind the language is quite complicated, but after a while, you begin to recognize the melody of certain words. Even for (someone like) me who doesn’t know how to whistle. I like that there is no room for errors: the messages are short and to the point: there are no adjectives! We live in a world where it is more and more difficult to understand each other, an era of increased constant surveillance and it was a draw for me to reintroduce something ancient into a very modern society and juxtapose the two. It adds an element of humor and in certain situations, it presents a strange and off-beat decalage.”
Porumboiu obviously had fun here playing with the codes of the genre, twisting them with his usual brand of absurdist humor and bone-dry black comedy satire in a puzzle-like plot that keeps the audience guessing until the end. “For references, I watched a lot of film noir classics, like Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Notorious, Gilda, Body Heat. With all these characters always double-crossing and role-playing. In my film, Cristi at first thinks he is in control of his destiny, but in the end, he is not and finds himself in a mess.”
For the director, The Whistlers, which benefited from a budget three times the amount he used for his previous films, “was the most complicated project in terms of production as for the first time we filmed abroad, in Spain and Singapore, with foreign actors.”
At 44, after five films and two recent documentaries about football, one of his other obsessions, Porumboiu understands it is still not easy today to have Romanian cinema distributed internationally but grateful for the exposure he can get in the film festivals and awards circuit. “Historically, we haven’t had a tradition of cinema-making,” he acknowledges, “and at the end of the day Romanian culture is still marginal in the context of the wider world.”