La Gomera’s Goombahs: Film Noir, Romanian Style
Writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu’s slyly stylish The Whistlers is one of those productions film buffs relish largely because of their cinematic references. In one scene characters appear in a theater where John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers is being screened. But while the 97-minute-long Whistlers’ Romanian characters may very well be searching for something (and/ or someone), the celluloid genre Porumboiu is most emulating isn’t the Western, but rather Film Noir.
There is also a Hitchcockian panache, paying homage to the Master of Suspense’s most famous scene from Psycho, as well as to mattresses, which hold a special place in the iconography of crime movies. Remember in The Godfather when they “go to the mattresses?”
The clearest embodiment of Porumboiu’s Film Noir-ish bent is Whistlers’ female lead, who is straight (and rather gloriously) out of Hollywood’s central casting for a femme fatale with arguably the most resonant woman’s name in this genre of psychologically-tinged crime dramas: Gilda. And like Rita Hayworth, who played that title character in Charles Vidor’s 1946 Argentina-set classic of the same name, as well as the femme fatale in Orson Welles’ 1947 The Lady from Shanghai, Catrinel Marlon’s Gilda is a vision of voluptuous beauty incarnate.
This is Whistlers’ essential plot point because just as the sexuality of Rita’s Gilda cast a spell over Glenn Ford, Marlon’s preternatural pulchritude likewise bewitches Bucharest police detective Cristi (Vlad Ivanov, who starred in Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Golden Globe-nominated 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days and in Porumboiu’s 2009 Police, Adjective, which was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film and won the FIPRESCI Prize and the “Un Certain Regard” Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival).
The sensuous Gilda’s hold over the older, ordinary-looking Cristi is cemented in their first sequence together when – supposedly to trick those conducting surveillance over Cristi’s apartment – they make love. It’s unclear as to whether or not the characters (not the actors, that is) are merely simulating or actually having sex, but in any case, it’s enough to get Cristi hooked on the gorgeous Gilda. As the pretty explicit sexual interlude is Gilda’s idea, her notion that this will throw their surveillers off the scent as to the real reason why they’re meeting may be a ruse she conjures up in order to entangle Cristi in her web of deception. He may be middle-aged and balding, but Cristi is also a pistol packing police inspector who may come in handy as the complex plot unfolds.
If you want precise details regarding the storyline, tune into KPCC’s “Film Week”, with the radio program’s reviewers disclosing plot spoilers with proverbial gay abandon. Or better yet, go see the movie itself. Suffice it to say the globe-straddling Neo-Noir moves from Bucharest to La Gomera, or the Canary Islands, a tropical archipelago located west of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean that is an autonomous community of Spain.
There, the twists and turns of the tale require Cristi to learn from a criminal gang Silbo Gomero, the whistled language that is a Native variant of Spanish and which the English version of the movie’s title is derived from (its original name is La Gomera). The whistling dialect enables users to avoid high-tech detection via sophisticated surveillance, but Silbo Gomero mainly plays the same role as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin does, as a plot device used to hang things on and move the story along in Alfred’s films. All things considered, the whistling tongue is an original, charming contrivance.
The Whistlers’ soundtrack also keeps moving things right along. The movie’s great score includes Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and chanteuse Ute Lemper sings “Mack the Knife” in the original German. Cinematographer Tudor Mircea’s lens captures imagery ranging from the gritty to the exquisite, as the camera globe trots from Bucharest to the Canaries to a Singaporean exaltation (not to mention close ups of the to-die-for Gilda).
Cristi’s fixation on Gilda may have Freudian overtones. His police department boss Magda (Rodica Lazar) is a woman. Cristi’s mother (Julieta Szönyi) – who he moves in with at one point – actually looks more like the same age as a sister. Perhaps the yearning, burning for the hyper-sexualized Gilda represents for him a way to overcome being dominated by women who have authority over him? For her part, Gilda may be more than a mere conniver – now in her thirties, she is turning the corner on youth and who knows how long her extravagant sex appeal will last? And perhaps that opening tryst in Cristi’s apartment had an impact on her, too – which might explain an extraordinary grand finale at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, a mind-boggling, eye-catching extravaganza as breathtaking as Gilda unclad.
In postwar Hollywood screenwriters and filmmakers, including some who’d belonged to the Communist Party such as Dalton Trumbo, who wrote 1950’s Gun Crazy, used Film Noir to question and explore America’s violent underbelly. Capitalism’s obsession with money, greed, corruption and materialism was skewered through the conventions of the gritty crime genre. Perhaps in a similar way Corneliu Porumboiu is casting a cynical eye at what, about 30 years after Ceaușescu’s downfall, a post-Communist Romania that joined NATO and the EU has become through the skeptical lens of Film Noir.
Be that as it may, The Whistlers would be right at home at “Noir City: Hollywood”, the annual Film Noir Festival co-presented by Eddie Muller and the American Cinematheque, taking place this year from March 6-15, primarily at the Egyptian Theatre. Indeed, according to the filmfest’s info: “This year’s program boasts a distinct international flavor, with Hollywood A and B titles joined by noir discoveries from Argentina (including two new restorations), Germany, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Sweden.” Add Romania to the list.