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Whistlers, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Police, adverseries."
3 stars

For all that some rightly complain about filmmakers being pigeonholed, there are times when filmmakers seem to do it to themselves. Take "The Whistlers", which has a clever premise for a heist, a nice cast, and an intriguingly twisted network of surveillance and corruption - and a writer/director in Corneliu Porumboiu who seemingly can't be satisfied to just make an entertaining genre movie. He acknowledges their appeal, references them, and otherwise sets up bits of meta-commentary, but doesn't capture the actual excitement of such movies.

Which is odd, because while Porumboiu's previous films have fit comfortably into art-house niches - they are restrained and often built around people talking dispassionately, somewhere between arch and dry - they have seldom been dull. His work has always had a sly wit and a way of circling around the point he was looking to make like a tiger ready to pounce before methodically disassembling its prey. The Whistlers occasionally drops hints that it's a sequel to one of those movies - Police, Adjective is referenced in a couple of oblique ways - although it's more something to investigate afterward than necessary prerequisite.

This one opens with Inspector Cristi Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov) arriving at La Gomera in the Canary Islands, there to meet Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) and learn the local "whistling language", which will play a part in Gilda's scheme to break her partner Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) out of prison. She warns Cristi that the seductive action that went on back in Bucharest was just her playing for the surveillance cameras. And there were plenty there, as Cristi did his best to work both sides while investigating how Zsolt was apparently using his mattress factory to launder drug money - though who isn't working angles, as Zsolt was caught in part by lead detective Magda (Rodica Lazar) encouraging Cristi and partner Alin (George Pistereanu) to plant evidence.

Of course, she asks that outside her office, which Cristi is sure is bugged, because people know how Magda works, and it's not entirely clear that Cristi's apartment is being watched as part of a sting. As in the previous movie, surveillance is a critical part of the film, here used to highlight just how both criminal and law-enforcement organizations must watch themselves for those who would betray them while nevertheless using the same people to keep the rest honest. Porumboiu doesn't quite make it inescapable, but instead takes a certain delight in the means of thwarting them, from whistles that can be heard clear as day but will nevertheless be ignored as birdsong to carefully managing how they behave around the cameras they know to be present.

It is, Porumboiu points out, like a movie, and as the film goes on, he highlights how the actions of such criminals are inevitably like a move and vice versa, culminating in a final chase that makes the connections explicit, as well as a darkly humorous bit of self-referentiality that comes a bit earlier. It's a clever path to take but in some ways not nearly as satisfying as just playing it straight; there are a number of striking moments and backdrops that impress the viewer as-is, but maybe seem a bit less creative when highlighted as references or deliberate takes on a trope. It's a level of irony that doesn't necessarily overburden the film, but doesn't necessarily elevate it, either.

Indeed, the film's most memorable moments are often its simplest, such as Cristi initially being unable to whistle and giving the person teaching him a sardonic look when told to curl his finger like he's holding a gun and the bullet would come out his ear, like he doesn't need more reminding that he's in the middle of something that could end disastrously. Vlad Ivanov's performance is sometimes a bit more reserved than need be, like he's been told to err on the side of not giving the game away, but he does good work in sincerely delineating the extent of Christi's amorality and how he's at least a little frightened by the people he's involved with despite being outwardly calm. Christi will inevitably fall for Gilda, of course, no matter how transparently she fits the role of femme fatale, but Catrinel Marlon occasionally does nice things with the role, her body language showing how Gilda has mixed feelings about using her beauty as a tool, eventually selling that she has her own messy human soul if not a heart of gold. Rodica Lazar eventually seems to have the most fun as Magda, showing a delightful bit of satisfaction at every moment in the final act that suggests that the woman introduced as a bloodless bureaucrat might just be the savviest and coolest person in the film.

Even a conventional heist film would call on her to hide this, of course, but it's hard not to think that a viewer might have enjoyed the revelation a bit more if the filmmakers weren't so intent on analyzing every aspect of it rather than just letting the absurdity and invention run a bit more wild. It's still a nifty crime caper for those who enjoy such things a bit on the dry and convoluted side, and truth be told, that's a group that probably already includes Porumboiu's fans and the people likely to disassemble these movies in the same way he does.

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originally posted: 03/30/20 08:02:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  26-Jun-2020 (15)


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