In Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu’s delightful, daft “The Whistlers,” a committed realist decides to go in style. The movie’s a modern-day film noir replete with a morally compromised hero, a bewitching femme fatale in red, double crosses, shady cops, a cache of stolen millions, and a mysterious Mr. Big pulling the strings.
The movie, now available on demand, even has soundtrack music. If you know your Romanian New Wave cinema, that has to come as a shock. Starting in 2004, a group of directors from that country turned global film festivals on their heads with a series of powerful minimalist dramas. Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005), Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest” (2006), and Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” (2007) revolutionized the movies by scraping filmmaking style down to the barest essentials. Yet as social statements they were all the more powerful for their starkness — they understood that if you looked at one thing long enough, you’d see everything else reflected in it.
“The Whistlers,” by contrast, is a lark, a literal holiday, since the hero, a dour Bucharest police detective named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), travels to the sunny Canary Islands in the opening scenes. (The music under the credits is Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and already the movie’s been goosed more than the last five Romanian films.) Upon disembarking from the ferry, he’s greeted by the cold-blooded hot number Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), who assures him that the passionate sex they had back in Bucharest was just to fool the surveillance cameras.
Gradually we come to realize we’re in the midst of a complicated game of love and greed and betrayal. There’s a mattress manufacturer named Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) who’s sitting in jail on drug-running charges, and a criminal gang that wants to get him out, if only to get at their money. To that end, they fly the detective out to the islands to be part of their plan, using Gilda and the possibility of a big payday as bait. If you know your noir, you’ll know that the cops with whom Cristi works, led by a hard-bitten lady police chief named Magda (Rodica Lazar), are as corruptible as anyone else. Like Bogart, Cristi’s the only one here with a conscience, and, like Bogart, he knows enough to keep it under wraps.
Funny that: Cristi was a character in an earlier Porumboiu film, “Police, Adjective” (2009), where he had a climactic argument over the meaning of the word “conscience” with his police chief. That doesn’t make “The Whistlers” a sequel so much as a change-up, the director messing with our heads by casting the actor who played the chief as Cristi this time around. Much about the new film feels simultaneously playful and dangerous, with fanciful inventions like the whistling language taught to the hero by the gangsters so they can communicate out loud in secret. Except it’s not an invention; it’s a real variant of Spanish called Silbo Gomero long in use on the Canary Islands.
“The Whistlers” takes place in a world where everyone’s being watched all the time, so what better way to elude suspicion than a language one can only hear? The movie’s eerie highlights come on the peaks of the island mountain ranges and the rooftops of Bucharest, as Cristi’s whistled messages are answered across great gulfs of space by unseen confederates.
Sounds and music are the tools of resistance against the state here. There’s a creepy hotel clerk who plays opera in the lobby to “educate” the clientele and who has an ace or two up his sleeve. Like so many aspects of “The Whistler,” he calls to mind another movie, in this case Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil” (1958), with its jittery night clerk played by Dennis Weaver. At times Porumboiu seems to be happily stapling together old Hollywood classics he loves: Gilda’s a nod to “Gilda” (1946), of course, there are touches of Fritz Lang’s gangster epics, and at one point Cristi meets with Magda in a movie theater showing John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956). After he’s passed on his information, she decides to stay for the rest of the film.
Plot takes a bit of a beating in “The Whistlers,” as does the hero, but that was true of the old noirs, too. Porumboiu cuts back and forth in time so that we have to reassemble the puzzle as we go. The effort’s worth it, if only for the pleasure of seeing one of the world’s finest filmmakers let his hair down and play his justified paranoia for genre thrills.
Written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. Starring Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar. Streaming rental on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Microsoft, and Fandango Now. 97 minutes. Unrated (as R: nudity, sex, language, violence). In Romanian, Spanish, English, and Whistle, with subtitles.