Just who are we meant to root for in Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Whistlers?”
Is it Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), the deadpan, corrupt Romanian cop yanked hither and yon — from Bucharest to La Gomera, in the Spanish Canary Islands — by the demands of his job and the mobsters he’s mixed up with?
Might it be Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), the perfectly-named femme fatale. Money and a man might be on her mind, but she’s a little too knowing and too quick to take on the guise of a “high class prostitute” to trust.
Perhaps Magda (Rodica Lazar), the head of Bucharest narcotics? She at least seems incorruptible. But we all have a price.
We can’t root for Paco (Agustí Villaronga), the mob boss who sets this convoluted caper in motion, all to get back “my right arm,” Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), who has been nabbed for money laundering.
Damn. We could pull for Kiko (Antonio Buíl), the mobster and Canary Islands native who undertakes teaching not-that-hapless Cristi “the whistling language,” a within-earshot code allowing you to spell out words and pass messages without a police-traceable cell phone.
“Poot your finger like-a-thees,” he starts, demonstrating how to get the right whistle. He doesn’t speak Romanian, Cristi doesn’t speak Spanish, and his Eeeengleesh if very Chico Marx. “Like eet ees a gun you poot in your mouth!”
That’s almost the only overtly comical thing in this bloody-minded “Blood Simple” style dark “comedy. That, and the guy (István Teglas) who runs the mob-friendly motel called “Opera.”
You can hear everything from Offenbach to “O Fortuna” once you walk in the door. “Doesn’t that chase off customers?”
No, it “educates them,” as if that needed explaining.
The creator of “12:08 East of Bucharest” serves up a convoluted caper-with-killings tale about a prison break, payoffs and double-crosses upon double-crosses.
Cristi is brought to La Gomera, told to “forget about what happened in Bucharest” and learn this tricky, intricate language as if his life depended on it.
Because it does. We see him punched and held under water, threatened and pursued by his mob connection and his cop colleagues.
“How did you end up like this?” his devout mother wants to know.
So do we. But as the chapters — named for various characters and “The Whistling Language” unfold, we get a load of Gilda and we sort of understand.
“Sort of” because the movie is a lot murkier than it should be, losing itself in traveling scenes through lovely Canary and seedy Romanian scenery, in lots and lots of rooms “under surveillance” and relationships that bend so out of shape that some are not who they seem.
And through it all, through near-drownings and near-riches, money lost and a duplicitous woman found, Ivanov never lets us guess how hapless and helpless or cunning and competent Cristi might be.
“The Whistlers” is that rare cops-and-criminals picture that gives us a little to chew on and a new skill to practice — whistling.
“Poot your finger like-a-thees, like eet ees a gun you poot in your mouth!”
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, bloodshed, explicit sex
Cast: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Sabin Tambrea, Antonio Buíl, Agustí Villaronga and István Teglas
Credits: Written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:37