Until now, the films of Corneliu Porumboiu have been austere, rigorously linear and leavened with understated, fatalistic humor. Set in the everyday drabness of Bucharest or other, even less glamorous Romanian cities, they turn the grievances, frustrations and hopes of ordinary people into deadpan philosophical case studies. “12:08 East of Bucharest” is an inquiry into the subjective nature of historical experience. “Police, Adjective” is a seminar on law, ethics and the meaning of words. “The Treasure” is both a fable of futility and an allegory of Romania’s precarious place at the margins of the European Union.
“The Whistlers,” Porumboiu’s newest film, is nothing like what I’ve just described. The chronology is splintered, the colors are bright, the plot intricate. There are picturesque non-Romanian settings and music on the soundtrack, starting with Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” All of it in the service of a thriller involving a hard-boiled cop, a femme fatale and an international crew of gangsters.
Still, “The Whistlers” is unmistakably a Porumboiu movie, and not only because it seems to be a literal (if also somewhat cryptic) sequel to “Police, Adjective.” Vlad Ivanov, who played the pompous provincial police captain in that film, returns in this one playing the same guy, Cristi Anghelache. Still kind of a jerk, he is now working in Bucharest. He alludes to his earlier experiences during a conversation with his own boss, a prosecutor named Magda (Rodica Lazar).
Ivanov is a kind of Balkan J.K. Simmons, on hand to embody both the stoical and the sleazy aspects of modern bureaucratic manhood. Among its other delights, “The Whistlers” gives him a rare leading role, one that could even have franchise potential.
“The Whistlers” takes him to La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. (The title refers to a local whistling-based language, called Silbo Gomero, that the movie’s gangsters adapt to their own purposes). Cristi arrives by ferry to reunite with Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), a fellow Romanian who is mixed up with some criminal business. They slept together once back in Bucharest, but that, she tells him, “was just for the security cameras.” Also for the movie camera, since this is a sex-and-violence genre exercise.
It’s also playfully self-conscious about its own movie-ness. At one point, a gangster conclave on La Gomera is interrupted by an English-speaking filmmaker scouting locations. A later scene takes place at the Bucharest Cinematheque during a showing of “The Searchers.” The twists and misdirections of the plot feel like nods to Hitchcock, classic noir, David Lynch and the Coen brothers. Cristi, operating in an ethical zone as gray as his wardrobe, is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle stuffed with banality. Is he a cynic or a sucker, a romantic or a con artist? Do these distinctions even matter?
Yes and no. The film-geek fun that Porumboiu so deftly indulges serves as an implicit rebuke to those who associate Romania with stripped-down, tough-minded realism. To which I plead guilty, while also confessing a measure of ambivalence about “The Whistlers,” an ingeniously structured, engaging and witty display of filmmaking. It is Porumboiu’s most elaborate feature and in some ways his least ambitious. Like a meringue or like a whistle, its substance is mostly air.