“I’m quite a serious person really, but sometimes I do stupid things.” Corneliu Porumboiu is in a confessional mood when we sit down at this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival to discuss his latest work, The Whistlers. Over the last 15 years, Romanian cinema has achieved international recognition thanks to the success of realist New Wave filmmakers like Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, and Călin Peter Netzer, but Porumboiu has always been something of an outlier, with his deceptively simple films unique for their absurdist sense of humour. “I love this kind of comedy,” he says. “For me, it’s instinctual. My characters are always very earnest, a little like Buster Keaton, except there’s this obsessiveness about them that I think is very Eastern European.” This commitment to both deadpan and local character traits is tested in his new film, which takes both director and viewer into new stylistic and geographic territory — with striking results.
Even within Porumboiu’s oddball oeuvre, The Whistlers, which arrived in Cluj-Napoca hot on the heels of its world premiere in Cannes, represents a departure. In place of the director’s usual dialogue-heavy approach, this is a crime drama about secretive communication. Charting the downfall of Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a corrupt police chief who travels to the Canary Island of La Gomera to learn an obscure whistling language, silbo gomero, in order to evade detection from his superiors, the film is comprised of gunfights and elaborate heists, and even stars Catrinel Marlon as a femme fatale. “I watched a lot of films like Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, and Notorious,” Porumboiu notes of his influences. “When writing The Whistlers, I always envisioned it as a noir. When they banned American movies [in Romania] in the late 1980s, the only way you could find films like these was on the VHS black market. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a VHS machine at home, so all my friends would come round to watch them.”
Born in 1975 in Vaslui, Porumboiu was a teenager when Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutal dictatorship came to an end, but the legacy of that era continues to rumble beneath the surface of his work. From his 2006 feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, to his most recent documentary, Infinite Football, the ripple effects of the 1989 revolution are ever-present, in his attention to debate and discourse as the bedrock of filmmaking. “I was 14 years old when the revolution happened, so you could say I was caught in the middle. Back in the 90s, a lot of movie theatres were closed down, so people from my generation don’t really go to the cinema anymore,” he explains, when asked how his films are received in Romania. “Anyone now in their twenties wasn’t alive during that period. They have their multiplexes, and like to go to the cinema for escapism. They display a certain type of individualism, which I think is good, but it’s very different to what I or my parents grew up with. There’s a generational disconnect, but I think a little conflict is good. It’s healthy to debate things.”
“My characters are always very earnest, a little like Buster Keaton, except there’s this obsessiveness about them that I think is very Eastern European”
Argument has always dominated Porumboiu’s work, with his films often culminating in verbal, rather than physical confrontation. Although signalling a stylistic break from his earlier, more observational work, The Whistlers continues Porumboiu’s fascination with language; in some respects, it’s a direct continuation of previous occupations. In 2009, he made Police, Adjective, a slow-burning procedural which also stars Ivanov as a disreputable detective. “I liked the idea of seeing this character still wrestling with words 10 years later,” Porumboiu says in reference to Police, Adjective’s ending, which sees Ivanov use a dictionary to undermine one of his officers. “I saw a TV show about this whistling language when I was finishing that film. I even wrote seven or eight different drafts of a script, but I didn’t like what I had written, so I dropped the idea and made other films instead.”
Porumboiu’s fondness for sarcasm frequently sees his intelligent explorations of language deteriorate into farce, with words stripped of their original meaning the very moment they’re spoken. “What I liked about this [whistling] language is you have to be very precise,” he says. I ask if he chose to make a film about this striking dialect because he was concerned his distinctive style might not translate overseas. “I don’t think so,” he replies. “I have audiences all over the world, I consider my films to be quite accessible. Well, except maybe for When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism,” he says, in reference to his 2013 meta-drama about a Romanian filmmaker. “That film is a little difficult. But it’s no Inception!”
“The Whistlers stems from my obsession with linguistics,” he continues. “I was fascinated with how these messages are coded and delivered across the island. The theory behind the language is quite complicated, but after a while you begin to recognise the melody of certain words — even someone like me, who doesn’t know how to whistle. But I like that there’s no room for error: the messages are short and to the point, there are no adjectives!”
Cristi is the latest in a long line of Porumboiu protagonists whose obsession leads them down a treacherous path. The director may not have the social realist bent of many of his New Wave compatriots, but he is nonetheless a perceptive commentator on Romanian society. The private dramas of these men, often faced with difficult choices, are undidactically linked to Romania’s public crises — from morally transgressive yet sympathetic men like Cristi, to those faced with the fallibility of personal codes of conduct like Costi, the low-level bureaucrat turned gold hunter in 2015’s The Treasure.
“I love these Don Quixote-type characters,” Porumboiu says. “Look at Laurențiu from Infinite Football. When he first told me about his project, I ignored it. But then he became more and more obsessed with it, so I had to see what it was all about.” A documentary about a mid-level pen-pusher and his ambition to redesign how the beautiful game is played, Infinite Football perhaps encapsulates Porumboiu’s ethos more than any of his other films. Highlighting the contradictions and follies involved in attempting to create a utopia within a closed-off political system, the film charts one man’s particularly Romanian obsession with rules and freedom — and football.
“If you look at the way the Romanian national team plays football, it mirrors society. All that talent, all that freedom, but we’re still very conservative”
Porumboiu has now made two documentaries about the sport, Infinite Football and The Second Game, in which he revisits a VHS recording of a historic match between Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest with his father — a former referee. For the director, football is tied to creativity, as well as broader social questions. “When I was 15, I played football four or five times a week. It gave me this structure that I now apply to my writing.” It could be argued that neither of these documentaries are about sport at all, with both films expanding into wider portraits of a nation struggling with change. “In Infinite Football, you have this guy who wants to revolutionise the game. This obsessiveness is quite Romanian. We grew up with all these rules from the communist era, and the bureaucracy we see in our country now is just a continuation of that past.”
Sadly, there aren’t many people in Romania like Laurențiu, and Porumboiu’s films are often laced with a begrudging sense of defeatism, something he feels is cultural. “If you look at the way the Romanian national team plays football, it mirrors society. They always look to play on the counter attack. They’re afraid of conceding, or giving something away. We’ve become very defensive as a nation — but this has always been the case, even if you look at that great generation of players who emerged at the 1994 World Cup. All that talent, all that freedom, but we’re still very conservative.” His latest film, at least, suggests that Porumboiu is not afraid of stepping toward the unknown.