Across the nation, movie theaters remain still—popcorn un-popped, screens unlit, cushy seats empty. 

Even if quarantine begins to relax in the coming months (a big if), 2020 will be a year without a summer movie season; distributors have begun pushing back their release schedules to the fall or even next year. Universal Pictures has opted to release some of its slate digitally, making “Trolls: World Tour” available at a premium price, delighting children and bludgeoning parents’ eardrums everywhere.

Independent theaters across the country have begun to adopt a similar strategy, offering virtual screenings in an attempt to stay afloat during a time when moviegoing is now at odds with both personal health and the law. This includes Ann Arbor’s own Michigan Theater and State Theatre: Each week, they are offering a roster of films new and old to rent and stream from the confines of the home. For those that can afford it, now is a better time than any to support these iconic Ann Arbor institutions.

This past week featured the Romanian crime drama “The Whistlers,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year and would have hit US theaters in the last couple months. At first glance, the film is a standard, pulpy crime thriller: It’s got corrupt cops, a dazzling femme fatale, money-laundering gangsters, shootouts and slashed throats. 

At second glance, things get a little more interesting: As the title might suggest, there’s quite a bit of whistling in the movie. The Spanish gangsters laundering drug money through a mattress company in Bucharest are crafty, and they’ve adopted an esoteric form of communication native to La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. This code, called El Silbo, is a real-life linguistic register comprised entirely of whistles (the videos online are well worth a watch). Christi (Vlad Ivanov, “Hier”), the classic world-weary detective with a dubious nightlife, is recruited by the aforementioned femme fatale, Gilda (Catrinel Marlon, “Leone nel basillico”), to learn this language in order to spring one of those gangsters from jail.

The idea of gangsters tweeting and whirling like birds to perform a jailbreak is quirky and exciting — but these are both qualities that the film ultimately lacks. As it turns out, the first glance wasn’t so far off from the truth. It’s pretty pulpy; early in the film the two leads are conveniently placed in a situation where Gilda must pretend to be a prostitute and have sex with Christi in order to fool some hidden cameras. And the plot is serpentine, flashing back and forward with little warning and leaving the audience without a lot of context at any given moment, save for multi-colored title cards that divide the film into a number of chapters. It’s possible that more humor or even livelier action sequences could have made the meandering plot more provocative, but its deadpan nature and inconsistent humor make this film feel like more of a languorous procession than thriller.

To its credit, the pieces are all there — a quick return to the earlier scenes made a lot of things clear in retrospect, so I imagine viewers with keen ears and eagle eyes may be able to piece things together. And the whistling gangsters really are a fun and imaginative idea. But with its lack of linearity and double-crosses galore — I’m talking crosses on crosses on crosses — the film is usually as inscrutable as the whistling language of La Gomera.


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