Friday, February 28, 2020

THE WHISTLERS: Corneliu Porumboiu's new Romanian film proves something different

Not to worry: all the characters here -- criminals to cops -- are as corrupt/crooked as we've come to expect from the the lion's share of new Romanian cinema. And it doesn't seem to matter much which excellent director is in charge: Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, Radu Jude, Radu Muntean or, in the case of the film under consideration here, Corneliu Porumboiu.  THE WHISTLERS -- the latest movie from the fellow who gave us 12:08 East of Bucharest, The Treasure and Police, Adjective -- takes the dark-ish comedy (I'd call him one of the more overtly comedic of these directors) for which he is justly known and adds a gorgeous foreign locale, a more breezy story featuring a quirky-but-it-actually-exists "language," and a load of bright, zingy colors to the mix -- resulting in the most conventionally entertaining and enjoyable Romanian film we've experienced so far.

Mr. Porumboiu, shown at right, uses one of his main actors from Police, Adjective -- Vlad Ivanov (below, right) -- this time in the role of (somewhat) romantic leading man, Cristi, which he fills quite well. Sturdy but hardly pretty, here he's a man's man with a mother problem. Cristi is crooked and corrupt, yet not wildly so, and within that framework he's developed his own moral compass.

The filmmaker jogs back and forth in time, though characters and events are never difficult to follow. These include the plans of a gorgeous, would-be femme fatale (Catrinal Marlon, below, left); a wittyly used mattress factory, the product of which figures cleverly into things; the Canary Islands, one of which offers up whistling as an actual language; a life-and-death chase and gun battle (on an abandoned movie set); a nasty throat-slashing; even a romance or two that appear to be blooming.

Porumboiu has the skill to combine all of the above in a manner that never seems cobbled together. Instead, things flow quite nicely, as betrayal piles upon betrayal and no less than the Church itself gets involved. And when I say that everyone here is corrupt, believe it. Cristi's police-chief boss (Rodica Lazar, below) maybe most of all.

What sets apart The Whistlers, not simply from the other films of Porumboiu but from other Romanian movies in general, is the utter lightness of its tone (and perhaps its theme, too). What's at stake here (though several lives are lost in the process) seems almost featherweight, yet the results are extremely enjoyable. Think of it as the Romanian version of something like Charade or How to Steal a Million -- on a much smaller budget, and handled with more subtlety, wit and (of course) darkness.

In fact, so lightweight and fun is this film that it seems almost as if Porumboiu might be auditioning for his first Hollywood effort. If so, give it to the guy, and fast. He can handle locations, actors, scripts (he's both writer and director), budgets, the works. And if the Hollywood tale includes a good bit of corruption and hypocrisy, hell, it might seem as though the man has never even left home!

Distributed in the USA via Magnolia Pictures and running just 97 minutes (short by Romanian standards),  the movie opened today in New York City at both Film Forum and Film at Lincoln Center and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. It will soon be playing in cities all around the country. Click here to discover one near you.

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