REVIEW: La Gomera [The Whistlers] [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 97 minutes
    Release Date: September 13th, 2019 (Romania)
    Studio: Ro Image 2000 / Magnolia Pictures
    Director(s): Corneliu Porumboiu
    Writer(s): Corneliu Porumboiu

The package arrived safely.

A Romanian detective named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) just landed on La Gomera in the Spanish Canary Islands. Because he’s unsure who’s supposed to meet him or where he’s going, he enters Kiko’s (Antonio Buíl) car with trepidation despite the man seemingly knowing everything about him. Only when they arrive at their destination to find Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) does Cristi relax since she’s the one who asked him to come and gave him the plane ticket. The reason is to teach him how to use an ancestral coded language via whistling so they can communicate in Bucharest without his captain (Rodica Lazar‘s Magda) comprehending. It’s the only way they’ll be able to get her boyfriend Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) out of prison—a man in possession of thirty million leu.

Why is Cristi involved with the Spanish gangster (Agustí Villaronga‘s Paco) pulling their strings to acquire that cash? It honestly doesn’t really matter. Writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu is more interested in the money’s motivational power to keep these self-serving con artists and double-crossers one step ahead of each other to worry about origin stories. La Gomera [The Whistlers] isn’t about Cristi or Gilda or Zsolt or Paco or anyone else. It’s about the prize. So when the film does rewind a bit during its chapters headed by each of the main characters’ first names, the context shared deals with it and it alone. Where did Zsolt smuggle the money before getting pinched? How did Gilda talk Cristi into coming? What’s Magda willing to do to arrest Paco?

These people are therefore expendable. They will sell the rest out to come out on top and they will show no remorse in the decision (unless lust—not love—gets in the way). This means the main heist to spring Zsolt is itself compromised from all angles since nobody really cares about his wellbeing (save Gilda … maybe). They just want the information in his head. So they sneak around with ulterior motives. Cristi hears his name and runs wherever he’s needed whether it’s across town to an eccentric motel run by an opera buff (István Téglás) or a thirteen-hour flight to the Atlantic Ocean. He tells Zsolt and Paco what they want to know and continues playing defense at the precinct to keep Magda contented yet guessing.

Porumboiu doesn’t even explain whether Cristi is getting some of the money for the risk he’s taking. The guy has surveillance cameras in his apartment, a young gung-ho partner who’d flip on him in an instant to advance his career (George Pistereanu‘s Alin), and a religious mother (Julieta Szönyi) willing to implode his life to reclaim his path towards God. To then hear that Cristi only makes one thousand leu a month as a police officer reveals real quick that he doesn’t need to see more than the fifty grand he’s already been given since that’s more than enough to substantially improve his life. It’s also more than enough to follow Paco’s demands and avoid the bullet to the head his right-hand Carlito (Cristóbal Pinto) hopes to provide.

Even with that motivation hanging over many heads, however, the money is still in control. It’s still why Paco is willing to kill them (not that he wouldn’t find another reason if pushed). The film carries an air of dramatic severity as a result because no one will truly be safe until the others are gone. That being said, The Whistlers does also live up to its comedy billing with a bone-dry humor floating just below the surface. It’s how Porumboiu can continue entertaining us in new ways despite the plot being so straightforward. When things get too serious, he introduces a throwaway character in a way that makes us chuckle regardless of the fact he/she will be dead in seconds. We laugh because the film never does.

The entire runtime possesses this tonal duality—and that includes an over-the-top sex scene tempered by reaction shots from the man running surveillance on the room. It’s exactly my kind of humor too because it neither smacks us in the face nor chides us for enjoying the levity present within dark situations. My only problem then is Porumboiu’s penchant for going against character to progress the plot where he wants it to go. Just because that desire allows him to create a climax that hits its embellished marks of calculated chaos doesn’t mean we’re simply going to believe what happens next. The denouement’s misguided attempt at a bow-tied fade-to-black that totally disregards one person’s undeniable selfish lack of remorse is too disingenuous a shift to ignore.

It thankfully doesn’t ruin the experience, though. Part of this is that it too is funny in its matter-of-fact comedy of errors once the inherent silliness of gangsters communicating via whistling is allowed the chance to finally be silly. It rewards chauvinism by turning an independent woman into the object her admirer wants her to be (that which she had rejected throughout) and could be extracted from the whole to admire the bleak yet believable end that preceded, but it doesn’t necessarily ruin all the good up until that point. We could probably chalk it up to a fantasy had by a seriously injured character instead—a happy ending that only happens in his dreams. I think that’s what I’ll actually do because it renders things even bleaker.

[1] Catrinel Marlon in THE WHISTLERS, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Vlad Cioplea. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] A scene from THE WHISTLERS, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Vlad Cioplea. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[3] A scene from THE WHISTLERS, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Vlad Cioplea. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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