The auteur behind the heist gone haywire film talks whistling language, surveillance states, and the communicative power of football
You do know how to speak the whistling language Silbo Gomero, don’t you? Just hook a finger between your lips – and blow. Corneliu Porumboiu, the Romanian auteur behind 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, has explored the idiosyncrasies of linguistics before, but never like in his seventh and latest film, The Whistlers. In a 180-degree spin from his typically dry, austere style, Porumboiu has written and directed an action-comedy romp that will delight fans of Ocean’s Eleven and foreign-language cinema alike – especially as, in this case, that language involves what the Beastie Boys would call shrill communication.
On the Canary island of La Gomera, a place where children are still taught Silbo Gomero in schools, the whistling language originated as a method for 16th century residents to exchange messages across ravines and long distances. In The Whistlers, though, canny criminals deploy Silbo Gomero to bypass security surveillance: when bank robbers whistle loudly, the police believe the birds are singing. Somewhere, a James Bond screenwriter is cursing loudly for not coming up with the idea first.
“I wanted to do a film about people who double-cross each other all the time,” Porumboiu tells me with words that are spoken, not whistled, in Hazlitt’s Hotel during the London Film Festival. “The Conversation and Inherent Vice are films I like a lot. No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece. I looked at a lot of classical noirs. I saw those films when I was a kid, and so I had an approach of a kid playing with things. I’d never done a shootout scene before.”
In prior films, the closest Porumboiu had come to a climactic shootout is when a dictionary is read aloud for ten minutes at the end of Police, Adjective. Elsewhere, The Treasure is 90 minutes of a man digging a hole, The Second Game is a family replaying a VHS tape, and When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is exactly what it sounds like. Yet within these minimalist constructs, Porumboiu manages to be inventive, darkly humorous, and politically incisive. A little patience is all that’s required.
In 2006, Porumboiu also became a leading figure of the Romanian New Wave with his Camera d’Or-winning feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest. The movement was, and still is, defined by films such as Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu. However, as Mungui told Dazed in a 2017 interview, audiences are tiring of a certain aesthetic from Romanian cinema: the grittiness, the long takes, the existential despair that permeates each miserable frame. The Whistlers, evidently, is an attempt at reinvention.
“I think cinema shaped our world. In this case, with the surveillance, my characters have to build their own character” – Corneliu Porumboiu
Thus The Whistlers kicks off with Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”, which, in a few jangly guitar chords, exudes more hyperactivity than Porumboiu’s last few films put together. “The movie is a journey, so (Iggy Pop’s) words fit,” Porumboiu notes, “but it fits a certain tone the film needed at the beginning.”
“The Passenger”, in these opening minutes, establishes a bouncy tempo for a knotty, pretzel-shaped genre puzzle. An ageing, jaded police officer, Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), meets a glamorous, smoking (as in, smoking a cigarette) femme fatale called, of all things, Gilda (Catrinel Marlon). “Forget what happened in Bucharest,” Gilda whispers, draped in red. “I did it for the surveillance cameras.”
The “it”, we learn in an ensuing flashback, refers to a hook-up. Cristi is a crooked cop, Gilda is a mobster’s girlfriend, and together they mastermind a heist; as a cover-up for their public meeting, she kisses him and pretends to be his lover. Out of paranoia that a hotel room is rigged with cameras, Gilda suggests they have sex and look like they enjoy it; Cristi does the second part rather convincingly.
So The Whistlers is not only non-chronological and deliberately confusing, but the characters deliver performances within performances within performances. It’s like if professional criminals took their lessons from black-and-white noirs rather than The Godfather. “Gilda’s not her real name,” Porumboiu explains. “She plays in a dangerous world, and invents an identity, like the film Gilda. She knows that she’s beautiful. It’s second-nature. I think cinema shaped our world. In this case, with the surveillance, my characters have to build their own character.”
Whereas Ivanov has worked with everyone from Bong Joon Ho to Maren Ade (when I interviewed Ade for Toni Erdmann, she said out of nowhere I seem like someone who would enjoy Police, Adjective), Marlon is relatively new to movies. “I tried a lot of Romanian actresses to be the femme fatale, and I wasn’t happy,” Porumboiu says. “I was speaking to Cristian Mungiu about it, and he told me that Catrina had to play the role. She was a model who lived in Italy, and so she came to Bucharest.”
Marlon and Ivanov, like Tom Cruise in a Mission: Impossible film, performed their own whistling. “A teacher trained them for two weeks, and then they kept in contact by Skype. For close-ups, it’s important to know how to pause, and how to breathe.” He makes one admission. “Well, Vlad did ADR for two lines (of whistling).”
Silbo Gomero requires relaxing your mouth like you’re an old man with no teeth, and shaping your saliva-y finger as if it’s a gun and the bullet will come out of your ear. The whistling, then, is a skill, and eminently watchable: it’s strange, funny, and more cinematic than an onscreen text message. Moreover, the nature-heavy soundscape of the Canary Islands transforms the film into an aural minefield. What is birdsong, and what is a rival gang plotting Cristi’s demise?
“Noir is an expression in terms of image and sound that is an extension of the character, and of their mood” – Corneliu Porumboiu
The Conversation and No Country for Old Men, too, are thrillers about sound – or, rather, the lack of sound. Like Cristi and Gilda, the protagonists of those movies grow increasingly paranoid about what they’re not hearing. “I think that’s noir,” Porumboiu says. “Noir is an expression in terms of image and sound that is an extension of the character, and of their mood. So I showed No Country to my sound guys.”
However, the more apt comparison is with Porumboiu’s own Police, Adjective, a 2009 drama that not only featured Ivanov in the cast but centred on a police officer called Cristi. The Whistlers, the director tells me, evolved from plans to write a sequel to Police, Adjective, and it took ten years of tossing out attempted drafts – some more realistic, some without drug-related storylines, but always with whistling.
In Police, Adjective, Cristi sticks up for a teenager about to be persecuted for an outdated law. Cristi and his boss end up reading out, and arguing over, definitions of words from a dictionary in a lengthy finale that’s somehow exhilarating. “I had this feeling that Cristi changes at the end (of Police, Adjective). How do we find this guy after ten years, in a different situation, in a different world, and feeling lost? And what if we change the storytelling style quite radically?”
As for the whistling, Porumboiu discovered Silbo Gomero from a TV documentary. “But my father was a referee, and he told me my interest in whistling must come from football.” In Porumboiu’s 2014 film The Second Game, the director and his father watch a videotape of a 1988 match the latter refereed. Porumboiu returned to the sport more recently for Infinite Football, a dryly comic, existential documentary that the New Yorker named as one of the 27 best films of the decade.
“Football is a language, and when you know about the details, it’s a beautiful art form. It could be a graceful gesture or a pass – for me, football can be as divine as cinema” – Corneliu Porumboiu
In Infinite Football, which will be released in the UK on the same day as The Whistlers, Porumboiu interviews a safety-conscious friend who proposes new rules such as an eight-sided pitch and forbidding players from crossing the halfway line. In a precursor to social distancing, “Football 2.0” minimises physical contact and allows the ball, not the player, to grab the stadium’s attention. Some may view it as an analogy for Romania rebuilding itself after the Ceaușescu era. Either way, football is evidently an extension of the director’s obsession with manipulating the laws of language. Or am I completely wrong?
“Of course football is a language,” Porumboiu says, laughing. “It’s communicated all over the world! It’s the most seen sport in the world – people get it. And when you know about the details, it’s a beautiful art form. It could be a graceful gesture or a pass – for me, football can be as divine as cinema.” In the same way you can tell a lot about a country by their filmmakers, he continues, the same is true with football. “Every country plays soccer in a way that defines who they are. The Romanian team defends a lot. They’re afraid. They prefer to go on the counter-attack.”
The Whistlers, though, is a film that goes on the attack from the opening whistle, resulting in what’s certainly Porumboiu’s most accessible feature. Whereas the director’s films have always dealt with universal themes such as day-to-day ennui and class warfare, The Whistlers does so with colourful car chases, a Tarantino-esque narrative, and, of course, the whistling. At one point, an English-speaking stranger bumps into Cristi and Gilda. Why? He’s scouting locations for a Hollywood movie.
“I think the film is universal because it’s a world of surveillance cameras,” Porumboiu says. “Cameras were made to shoot stories. But, nowadays, cameras are more and more for surveillance. In order to combat surveillance, people are inventing characters. When people promote themselves on social media, they’re building a character.”
As the interview ends, Porumboiu mentions that he’s working on three potential projects, including a “sort of musical” and a TV series. It’s hard to know what the director would do next – and that’s truly exciting. In the meantime, as Rita Hayworth would say, you do know how to watch The Whistlers, don’t you? Just put your lips together, and sit enthralled for 98 blissful minutes.
The Whistlers and Infinite Football can be streamed on Curzon Home Cinema on May 8