Romanian films don’t often find themselves under the international spotlight, but when they do, they tend to be about as hard-hitting as they come. 2016’s Graduation was like getting slapped around in the cinema for 128 minutes, while the modern classic 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is perhaps the greatest and most harrowing film ever made about abortion.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I hear about about The Whistlers — a darkly comic thriller about a corrupt cop who’s tasked with learning a whistling language native to the Canary Islands. There’s more to it than that, but the film’s extremely nonlinear and dilatory method of storytelling prevents much in the way of synopsis.

Vlad Ivanov stars as Cristi, the aforementioned cop, who’s become so tangled up in a plot to launder money through a mattress company that it’s not entirely clear if even he understands his level of involvement. Both his superiors at the police station and in the underworld are breathing down his neck after one of his main contacts gets busted, and Cristi is therefore responsible from breaking him out of prison. For whatever reason, he needs to learn to communicate via whistling in order to do this.

If this sounds convoluted, that’s because it very much is. The film does a good job of not taking itself too seriously while also maintaining a cool sense of detachment — largely thanks to Corneliu Porumboiu‘s careful direction. The Whistlers‘s seemingly endless chapters and flashbacks all do end up forming a cohesive whole by the end, despite the film’s attempts to fracture its narrative into as many parts as possible.

The ending, however, is where the film really starts to let down. The Whistlers is at no point a fully original film, borrowing heavily from work already done by the Coen brothers or a films Sexy Beast, but what few sparks of ingenuity are present in the beginning have vanished by the end. The last half hour or so of the film is a real slog, with few surprises and even fewer moments of genuine satisfaction.

As entertainment, however, the movie does undoubtedly succeed. The story, while far from novel, is enough to keep the average viewer interested, and the moments of sex, violence and suspense are dropped in just dutifully enough to carry the film through to its conclusion.

While The Whistlers is a welcome reprieve from the usual nightmare fuel coming out of Romania, it does lack much of the courage that many of its national cinematic brethren seem to have. While undoubtedly a good time, the film promises far more than it delivers — thankfully it still delivers enough to be worth a watch.

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