This review contains minor spoilers for “The Whistlers.”
While you likely have heard of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), you may not know that the festival purchased the Riviera Theater in June 2016 to screen independent and international films year-round. Like all movie theaters, the Riviera Theater has halted showings for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19. In order to compensate, the Riviera Theater is offering rental streams for an assortment of recently released independent films. One of the films available for rental is “The Whistlers,” which I rented and viewed recently.
“The Whistlers” is a Romanian film written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. The film focuses on a Romanian police officer, Christi, and his efforts to play both sides of the law. This leads him to one of the Spanish Canary Islands, La Gomera, where he must learn the whistling language of the island in order to assist a group of mobsters to free their criminal businessman associate.
The premise of this movie is great. It would still be great even if all of the details were completely imagined, but the whistling language of La Gomera actually exists. It is known as Silbo Gomero, or El Silbo, and is used by inhabitants of the island to communicate through the valleys and across long distances, enabling messages to travel as far as 5 kilometers. The fact that the whistling language that the film uses as a key plot point is authentic adds a level of plausibility that lifts the story as a whole.
As much as I liked the premise, I was unsatisfied with the execution of the narrative. One of the biggest factors in this was my inability to feel strongly for the characters in the film. Christi, the protagonist of the film, is a middle-aged unmarried man with no children, and few, if any, redeeming qualities. While featured in a large part of the film, Christi comes off as plain, uninteresting, and definitely not a character that viewers ever really root for.
Another issue I had with the film was that despite its classification as a “thriller” on the Riviera Theater website, there were very few moments that felt thrilling or even suspenseful. This issue in part ties back to my lack of emotional investment in the characters; even when they were in danger, I felt mostly indifferent about the outcome.
Despite these flaws, I did find the film to have several impactful moments that made the viewing enjoyable. I found the film to be very visually appealing, especially the footage shot on the Canary Islands when Christi is learning the whistling language. There is a purposeful distinction of settings between the Canary Islands and Romania that sets up a recognizable contrast, both visually and narratively.
Even if “The Whistlers” does not sound intriguing to you, I’d recommend checking out the other films for rental on the Riviera Theater website. Most of these films were released within the past year and cannot be found on popular streaming services. On top of that, you would be supporting a local Santa Barbara business that is forced to keep its doors closed at this time.