Beginning your crime film with “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop is a marvelous idea and one that excitingly sets the tone for the very clever and labyrinthine noir “La Gomera” (“The Whistlers” in the English version). With his latest film director Corneliu Porumboiu has created a fantastic and riveting pop-culture cops-and-mobsters film that occasionally gives way to philosophical leanings.
Vlad Ivanov is Cristi, a corrupt cop from Bucharest who gets caught up in a money-laundering scheme. The rub is that this is the same drug-money case he is currently investigating. He goes to The Canary Islands and meets a contact (Cristóbal Pinto). He is there to learn a whistling language called “Silbo” that is composed of a half dozen notes that represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet. This is the code used by the region’s gangsters to communicate with one another. As one certain character states, “the police will hear it and think the birds are singing!”
After Cristi learns the whistling language, he is tasked with helping to facilitate the breakout of a criminal associate, a mysterious man named Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), from the local jail. Also on the island is Zsolt’s girlfriend, Gilda (Catrinel Marlon). I am more than confident that her character’s name is a deliberate homage to the classic Noir film “Gilda” directed by Charles Vidor and the character wears her name like a badge of dangerously seductive honor.
Gilda is all tight-fitting skirts and smoky attitude. This femme fatale comes with her own secret. She already knows Cristi! Before a flashback is used as a window into their past, so much is revealed in one line, “forget what happened in Bucharest. That was just for the surveillance cameras.” The two did, indeed have an affair, but was it a set up all along to get him involved in what’s happening here? This is just one of the many crime noir elements and interesting mysteries at play.
In this slick screenplay, we meet an interesting assortment of well-drawn characters such as a police sergeant (Rodica Lazar) with her own sketchy past and a drug lord named Paco (Agustí Villaronga) who is on a path of vengeance. These are the two main supporting characters that help lead to the big double/triple-cross that will set everything in motion. Throw in mattresses stuffed with cash and the scene is set for the perfect crime film about imperfect crimes.
Director Porumboiu keeps his pacing crisp and his characters deadpan. Like his wonderful film “Police, Adjective” (which helped usher in the current Romanian cinematic New Wave), the filmmaker explores the mechanics of his character’s motivations but pushes them as far as one can without falling into the comically absurd. This film does have a sense for dry, black, comedy but this isn’t Coen Brothers territory. Nor is this a cinematic continuation of the filmmaker’s excellent stoically comedic “12:08 East of Bucharest.”
Porumboiu wants to deconstruct the tough guy mentality rather than mock it. This is less a genre exercise and more askew sense realism peppered with cinematic homages. The director even sets his finale on an abandoned film set!
The plot can be muddy to those who let their attention drift, as the caper isn’t the main focus and the main character is probably more of a symbolic plot device for what the filmmaker aims to bring across than an actual person, but it works in the context of the film all the same.
In a crime film that blankets itself with references to cinema, we see Cristi as an actor of sorts, who perceived himself to be in a movie of his choosing only to discover that he has been manipulated into another. He is a man who lets himself get suckered into a world that forces him to focus on his ever-crumbling moral center.
Christi’s character (and the film entire) speaks to the dangers of overwhelming paranoia. The film is blanketed in an aura of secret observations that keeps every character on an uneven keel. Cinematographer Tudor Mircea smartly doesn’t try to mimic the noir visual style but keeps the mood going with his lens and lighting techniques, allowing even the audience to feel unnerved by whatever watchful eyes may be observing us.
“La Gomera” is a very entertaining thriller that carries its familiar tone and subject matter to something rather special through sharp filmmaking, crisp writing, and a love of the film noirs that paved the way for a film like this one.