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(The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, or “TIFF”  runs September 5-15. Hammer to Nail has boots on the ground with Matt Delman and Chris Reed covering so keep your browser pointed here! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

A glorious oddity of a metaphysical thriller, Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers (original title “La Gomera,” after the Canary Island where much of the initial action takes place) whisks us back and forth in time and space to keep us constantly guessing about its characters’ next moves. The English-language title comes from the “secret language” that a group of Spanish mobsters uses to speak in code, a high-frequency blast of sound that, unintelligible to the layperson or not, certainly draws attention to itself. Is that really what an organized-crime boss would choose as the best way to communicate? For what it’s worth, the whistling language exists, but even were it a pure cinematic invention, that delightfully strange detail, plus many others, adds to the off-kilter charm of the film.

A story of double-cross layered on top of double-cross (and more!), the movie begins with Cristi, a middle-aged Bucharest detective on a cruise to the titular island. There, he is met by a Spaniard, who brings him to a house where an attractive, if glowering, younger woman, Gilda, greets him and shows off the premises. She’s brisk and efficient, but hardly friendly. Cristi seems to expect some sign of more-than-professional acknowledgement. Reading him correctly, Gilda leans in, quietly, but emphatically, stating, “Forget what happened in Bucharest. I did it for the security cameras.” Hmm, intrigue. Cue the flashback, and away we go.

To recount every plot point would be to spoil the surprise, so let’s just say that The Whistlers, in its pure narrative form, is about drugs, money, greed and love (requited or not). Undergirding that conventional police drama, however, is an intriguing study of midlife ennui and post-communist malaise. Romania may be part of the modern European Union, but the legacy of its dystopian past lingers in the decaying infrastructure and tired faces of its capital city. The final shootout, in an abandoned movie studio, is a perfect metaphor for once-glorious dreams now shattered. What else is a man like Cristi to do when fantasy is consumed by real life?

The cast is first-rate, with actors Vlad Ivanov (Graduation), Catrinel Marlon (Loro chi?) and Rodica Lazar (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) forming a perfect triangle of depression, deception and desire. Director Porumboiu (The Treasure) keeps things moving along at a quick clip, cutting between scenes and parallel actions with dizzying virtuosity. If certain parts are outlandishly conceived (such as a hotel with an opera theme), the mise-en-scène is mostly up to the task of stitching them together into a satisfying whole. Forget whistling while you work; try this playful tune, for a change

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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