The iconic guitar riff of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” is the type of musical vignette that immediately evokes a scene in one’s mind. It’s an anthemic celebration of aimless wandering that stands as a testament to the drifters of the world, so when it plays during the opening moments of Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers, it feels like a match long overdue. In the context of the film, which premiered in competition at Cannes, the song serves as an introduction to the character of Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a stoic and reluctant policeman. By merely going through the motions, Cristi finds himself in the middle of a criminal web of deception in the exotic sights of La Gomera island in Spain, but “The Passenger” could really describe any of the protagonists in the Romanian filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Ever since his Caméra d’Or-winning debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), Porumboiu has made a name for himself by way of his deadpan humor, unobtrusive aesthetics, and meticulous observations of lost men and their absurd search for fulfillment. Be it the has-beens of a local telecast trying to forcefully determine if a revolution took place in their small town, a father’s droll Robin Hood-inspired quest for paternal redemption in The Treasure (2015), or a bureaucrat’s quixotic dream of “enhancing” soccer rules in Infinite Football (2018), the Eastern European director always finds a distinctive angle in which to frame the anxieties and civil numbness of the rambling outcasts of contemporary society.
In the case of The Whistlers, these thematic through lines and formal mannerisms get a fresh uptick by being immersed in the intricacies of neo-noir. Now Porumboiu’s wry long takes are tinged by a constant sense of dread and the laconic awkwardness of his dialogues are employed for reticence. All of this established as soon as Cristi sets foot on La Gomera and begins to learn an obscure whistling language supposed to be essential for his plans of freeing a scabrous businessman arrested in Bucharest. What then unfolds is a sinuous path of triple-crossings, facades, and miscommunications—with parts in English, Romanian, Spanish and El Silbo this truly is a polyglot script—that finds the befuddled protagonist forming an unlikely alliance with femme fatale Gilda (Catrinel Marlon).
As in the Romanian auteur’s previous efforts, there’s a feeling of obliviousness that permeates the main character’s actions, something that in the case of Cristi in The Whistlers is emphasized as a dialectical method. Amidst the arch flamboyance and cynical severity of the neon-lit world he so unenthusiastically inhabits, his lack of pretense feels quietly subversive.
We spoke with Corneliu Porumboiu to discuss how cinephilia, language, and genre all intertwine in The Whistlers.
NOTEBOOK: The film begins with Cristi venturing into the unknown setting of this paradisiac island. How did you come to the realization that it had to be La Gomera, Spain, specifically?
CORNELIU PORUMBIOU: I visited the island and immediately knew it was the ideal location. The international translation of the title is pretty good, The Whistlers, but in Romanian I decided to keep the original name of the place. I wanted to evoke a certain type of space; a certain type of paradise. It was linked with the whistling language also, so I chose to keep working with two different titles.
NOTEBOOK: In some way, that decision also reflects what the film is doing in terms of playing with language, having as much as four different tongues spoken. How do you perceive the importance of language in the film?
PORUMBIOU: It’s a world in which characters use language in order to double-cross and try to find an advantage. The reason I wanted to have a world in which money rules everything, is because in spite of the strength of each character, nobody is listening to each other.
There is this main character that learns this new coded language in order to do something bad, but later in the film this language becomes necessary for him. I wanted to play with it in a few different levels. This mysterious code language also signals towards a kind of ancient tradition; more pure, and similar to how birds communicate. So I wanted to explore how through the process of learning this, the main character could also learn something about himself.
NOTEBOOK: Language also has a political dimension, which is something you explored in 12:08 East of Bucharest with the different retellings of a same historical event. Do you see that dimension present in The Whistlers?
PORUMBIOU: Here the attitude is very different. It was something very naive in 12:08, because the people there tried to define what was happening. They believed in language. Even if each of the characters has their own fiction in their mind, they try to define one general idea, like the revolution. Here that doesn’t happen. The characters are very cynical, and they use language as a means to get an advantage over someone else. It’s basically used as an instrument—as a gun.
NOTEBOOK: Does that cynicism respond to a more contemporary context?
PORUMBIOU: I think nowadays, generally at least, nobody communicates too much. I feel people stick to strong positions and don’t really try to establish a dialogue. Of course, my world, that of the movie, is very particular; it deals with drug dealers, the police officers searching for them, the money in between, and those trying to get the money. It’s very particular, but at the same time I feel that the problem of people not listening to each other also applies to the real world; a renouncement of understanding, if you want.
NOTEBOOK: How do you relate that idea of renouncing understanding with the film noir world you establish?
PORUMBIOU: There are a few levels, because in the beginning I had a few of the characters drawn, and I wanted them to be strong characters, so I watched a lot of the classic noir films.
The other thing is the relationship with the camera, surveillance cameras. At the beginning, cameras were made to film stories, but now they’re everywhere. A few of the characters were inspired by some classic films in order to play a role, because they are very aware that they are being filmed. Like Gilda, for example. She works with the mafia, and is related to the police, so she puts forward certain type of mannerisms.
In this world, where there are a lot of cameras filming everywhere, I wanted to have characters that play another character in order to deceive the cameras; And what they use are archetypes from other films. After that, I was enticed by the same style they were portraying, so the whole film became immersed in that same vein of classic film noir.
NOTEBOOK: With works like Police, Adjective, The Treasure, and now The Whistlers, you’ve distinguished yourself from your Romanian New Wave contemporaries by delving into genre. Do you feel that working within those templates opens up new possibilities for your creative process?
PORUMBIOU: In this case, for me, it was the best way to tell the story. I wanted that. It’s a story that also has an underlying theme of searching for paradise, with the gardens towards the end and that, so I didn’t want to have a realistic approach. I’ve never had in my films. It’s not my way of doing cinema.
Both my previous fiction (The Treasure) and documentary (Infinite Football) have a fable structure. For me, it’s the best way to express through the genre. In the case of The Whistlers,I went like: “Ok, I like The Third Man, The Night of The Hunter, Notorious, The Big Sleep, and the way they say different things through their style.” I can’t see those stories told in any other way, and the same thing goes for my stories.
NOTEBOOK: In the film that sense of cinephilia seems quite present. You work with different references throughout the film, like when the characters go to the cinematheque and see The Searchers.
PORUMBIOU: Yeah, because these characters, they are also like me. They were born and then formed by a certain type of cinema. These types of references that I use are not because of me as an author, but by playing by the rules of the characters.
The western is perfect for the character of the chief of police [Rodica Lazar], because of her cruelty. In the film, each character was formed by a certain type of cinema, so I thought that those types of movies should also be present in the universe of the film.
NOTEBOOK: In that regard, one of your casting choices is quite interesting. You have Spanish cult director Agustí Villaronga as the main bad guy. How did that come to be?
PORUMBIOU: I asked for him. It was for me very interesting; he doesn’t look like the classic mafioso. I wanted someone that looked more aristocratic. Not a cliché.
For each character I try to have very powerful personas, not just their actions but also visually. Except for the main character, who is kind of lost between everything. Agustí had this imposing face that I liked a lot.
NOTEBOOK: The main character, Cristi, is played by actor Vlad Ivanov, who you already had as a police officer in Police, Adjective. Are those kind of links between your work consciously made?
PORUMBIOU: When I was starting this script, I was thinking a lot about that character he played in Police, Adjective. He had a certain type of ideology, a cult to power and words. I thought about how would it be to find this character ten years later, because his ideology won’t last forever, so I put him in a completely different world where now he is totally lost. It did play into the construction of Cristi.; it was its starting point.
NOTEBOOK: In some ways, one can trace a through line between your protagonists, usually being kind of lost, defeated, and working as outsiders. How does it change to work with them in a documentary like Infinite Football, and then in a stylized fiction like The Whistlers?
PORUMBIOU: For me, first it’s important what I want to say. Then I figure out how I want to say it. I’m always open to the way I conceive as the best form. I like to try other things; not being in the same vein all the time. Cinema has had 100 years and has gone in all different directions, so when I figure out what I want to say, I like to be as open and free as the medium lets me.
In The Treasure, it started as a documentary, but then I fictionalized it, and it ended up being an adventure film. Everything I make I try to approach with freedom in terms of form and how I want to treat it.
NOTEBOOK: When deciding what to say, do you ever conceive a responsibility, or need to talk about your context?
PORUMBIOU: I think these ideas come from the fact that I was born in Romania. I was raised in a certain type of culture. Even if I didn’t want them there, they’ll still be there in the film.
I think the context is there in the subjects and the way of shooting. After that I really don’t think about responsibility. I’m just doing my best for each subject.
NOTEBOOK: In the case of The Whistlers, did you see the motivation to do a film noir as a kind of response to the current political climate?
PORUMBIOU: All is political. Everything we are doing. Film noir was coming from German Expressionism, mainly by directors that went to the States to run away from fascism. They toned down the idea of action in American cinema towards a greater focus on atmosphere and space, and after the second world war it came as a great portrayal of a generation’s concerns. People could see themselves in these cynical characters. Maybe the genre is relevant now after all the crises we’ve been dealing with in the world today. Even to choose a genre is a political action nowadays.