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A version of this story about “The Whistlers” first appeared in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Director Corneliu Porumboiu was a central member of the influential New Romanian Cinema, which has shockingly been completely ignored by Oscar voters. His new film, “The Whistlers,” is his second to represent that country in the Oscar race after his deadpan, talky 2009 film “Police, Adjective.” Porumboiu discussed his new movie, a wry film noir about a detective on one of the Canary Islands, where the residents have perfected a language that consists entirely of whistling.

I know this film was inspired when you saw something on TV about the whistling language on the island of La Gomera, but how did you get from that to this particular story?
It took 10 years. It was TV reportage about the island, and at one point they showed something about the whistling language. I got interested right away. I had just finished “Police, Adjective,” and after that I start to read things about the language. After two or three years I spoke with a friend of mine who was on the island who knew some teachers, and I went to the island and I saw the classes where they teach the language.

I was all the time interested to have in the center of the film the process of whistling. I wanted to make a film about a guy who was going to learn the language to do something bad, and after that this language became more important to him. All the time I was thinking, “Let’s do this film with this second character from ‘Police, Adjective’ — someone who in his ideology can’t last.”

Also Read: 'The Whistlers' Film Review: Romanian Wild Ride Runs on Black Humor

Was it always clear that this was going to be a genre movie, a film noir?
When I decided to make a movie about people double-crossing each other, I said, “OK, I have to re-see noir films.” “The Big Sleep,” I like a lot. Also “The Maltese Falcon,” “Gilda,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Third Man,” “Notorious,” “The Night of the Hunter” … But I think “The Big Sleep,” mostly, because I wanted the story to be quite messy in the middle for the audience. The character thinks all the time that he’s in control, but he’s not. And maybe the whistling language could clarify things for him.

The film can be very funny, but it’s a deadpan, dry humor.
I had some funny dialogue scenes that I cut. The first draft was 40 minutes longer, and I took out a lot of scenes. Trying to keep a certain type of structure, to be more with action, I had to cut. So I had quite good dialogue scenes of humor that I cut. I’ll use them in another film.

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This was your biggest budget film. Did you run into challenges because of its scale?
Yes, yes. We shot in Spain, but we didn’t find the money there. We found money in Germany, Romania, France and Sweden, and I had to do parts of the film or the postproduction in all those countries. Of course that brought new challenges. And also, it was the first time I had fighting scenes and shootouts, but I liked to do that.

Does it seem as crazy to you as it does to some of us that Romania has never even been nominated for an Oscar in the international category?
Yeah, I don’t know, I think the Romanian cinema in the last 15 years is quite present in festivals and all around the world, but I don’t know. For me, it’s my second time as the Romanian submission. That first one, “Police, Adjective,” I think was quite hard to be nominated. Let’s see with this one.

Read more from the International Film issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

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Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu has quickly established himself as one of the most unique and clever Eastern European directors making original films these days. Between Infinite Football last year, and his new feature at Cannes this year, Porumboiu has proven that his mind is unlike any other and is giving us some of the quirkiest, weirdest, smartest, and most interesting cinema that you'll discover in tiny art house cinema all over the world. His latest film is an adventurous dark comedy titled The Whistlers, a cops and criminals story from Romania about a double-crossing cop-criminal who is recruited to help get a guy out of jail in exchange for cash. For the first half I wasn't even sure where this story was going, but by the end it was obvious he was giving a nod to Hitchcock's quirky capers and classic film noir. And having fun doing so. Porumboiu's The Whistlers is divided into a number of chapters separated by colorful ...

It wasn’t hard to figure out who the guest of honor was when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences threw a Cannes Film Festival cocktail party on Friday night. Sure, the guests included studio heads and a number of notable filmmakers from the indie and documentary worlds — but the guy everybody wanted to talk to or be photographed with was Dexter Fletcher, who the night before had premiered his Elton John musical “Rocketman” at the festival to a lengthy standing ovation.

Mainstream commercial movies aren’t guaranteed winners at Cannes, which can be a snobbish place and has turned up its nose at the likes of “Robin Hood,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “The BFG” in the past. But the thoroughly pleasing “Rocketman” was a home run for Fletcher and for Paramount Pictures, and a love fest for its subject. As the festival comes to the end of its first weekend, Cannes is still searching for any artier movie that will generate the kind of enthusiasm Fletcher’s popcorn flick generated.

With 12 of the 21 main-competition titles already screened — along with about half of the Un Certain Regard section and most of the Out of Competition and Special Screenings sections — the most common response to the inevitable “How’s your festival going?” question is clearly something along the lines of, “Good, but I haven’t seen anything that’s really knocked me out.”

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In that climate, an enjoyable commercial movie can be the hit of Cannes for a few days at least, though many of its admirers are probably now counting down the days until Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Sony release “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” hits the Croisette on Tuesday.

But there’s something very un-Cannes-like about a festival whose buzziest films are a major-studio rock ‘n’ roll movie and a major-studio Tarantino one. You can take the lack of heat (or bidding wars) as indicative of an ailing indie marketplace in the U.S., where some buyers have disappeared, others are cautious and nobody’s quite sure where streamers like Netflix (absent so far) and Amazon (a modest deal for “Les Miserables”) stand.

Still, it’ll be instructive to see what happens with Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” which premiered on Sunday. It’s a strong enough film to be a potential lure for the likes of Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features and Fox Searchlight, the latter of which did well with Malick’s last standout film, “The Tree of Life,” in the days before Searchlight’s parent company was absorbed by Disney.

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“A Hidden Life” was one of a trio of films that made for an unusually strong Sunday lineup. The other two received even more positively. Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was singled out by reviewers as a particularly ravishing entry, and Robert Eggers’ two-person tour de force “The Lighthouse” with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, created a furor down the Croisette at Directors’ Fortnight.

Those films suggest that this could be a late-blooming Cannes, that the indies could make some noise once Paramount and Sony have done their thing. And truth be told, even with the lack of a knockout surprise or two, the quality has been consistently strong over the first six days.

And consistently grim, too. Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables” is an unsparing portrait of police violence and societal corruption in Paris, and Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Whistlers”is a blackly comic look at the same thing in Romania. Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” adds a touch of magical realism to a heartbreaking story of refugees fleeing Africa, while Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You” is a devastating indictment of the ways in which the gig economy can cheat the working class.

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Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles throw in some genre trappings with their brutal social commentary in “Bacurau,” and two films examine the commodification of love in dramatically different ways: Jessica Hausner’s “Little Joe” is a cautionary tale about genetic engineering replete with horror-movie trappings, while Werner Herzog’s “Family Romance, LLC” is a quietly creepy depiction of a (real-life) Tokyo company that rents out substitute family members.

(Even the jokey opening-night zombie movie, Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die,” is a message flick in which the dead rise because the Earth’s axis has been shifted by, um, polar fracking. Really.)

These are dark films for a dark age, and they give this year’s Cannes a strong personality even beyond what the festival says about the state of the film business.

Also Read: Jim Jarmusch's 'The Dead Don't Die' Splits Cannes Audience: 'Winningly Eccentric' or 'Invasion of Clichés'

Meanwhile, the race for the Palme d’Or heated up over the weekend with the arrival of the Sciamma and Malick films, which figure to challenge  Loach (vying for a record-breaking third Palme win with “Sorry We Missed You”) and Pedro Almodovar (looking for his first-ever win with the beautifully reflective memory piece “Pain and Glory,” which figures to strike a chord with jury president Alejandro G. Inarritu, at least).

Still to come are the Dardenne brothers, also in search of their third Palme, along with Ira Sachs, Bong Joon Ho, Xavier Dolan, Elia Suleiman — and, oh yeah, that Tarantino guy, who should be taking Cannes by storm on Tuesday.

Maybe by then we’ll have moved on from “Rocketman.”

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When Corneliu Porumboiu began making films in Romania just after the turn of the century, we knew what Romanian cinema was like — or, at least, we knew what the branch that came to be known as the Romanian New Wave was like. The movement, one of the most vital cinematic eruptions of the 2000s, was full of dark, minimalist, realist films that depicted, either overtly or implicitly, a society that was rotten to the core.

There’s some of that in Porumboiu’s “The Whistlers,” which had its world premiere on Saturday at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is dark and it’s set in a world where you can’t trust anyone — but it’s also got John Wayne and Alfred Hitchcock homages and enough twists and turns to require a detailed scorecard.

“The Whistlers” is no minimalist slice of realism, but an oversized, deliciously twisted ride that runs on an endless supply of black humor and a sizeable body count. You won’t laugh much while you’re watching it, but it’s a hoot nonetheless.

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And while it doesn’t feel like a typical entry in the genre that was launched to international attention by Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” that’s to be expected. The movement long ago morphed into a group of creative filmmakers going in whatever direction they wanted, with a jaundiced view of society and a dark humor being the only constants.

And a humor that’s so black you can barely see it has long been one of Porumboiu’s go-to skills. His brilliantly exasperating drama “Police, Adjective,” which won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009, was a procedural that deliberately bogged down in endless semantic arguments; you either surrendered to its talkiness or you threw up your hands in frustration, and either way the director was probably fine with your reaction.

“The Whistlers” is his first film to make it into Cannes’ main competition, though the writer-director has had success at the festival through the years — not just “Police, Adjective,” but also his short “A Trip to the City (Calatorie la oras),” which won second place in the Cinefondation competition in 2004, his debut feature, “12:08 East of Bucharest,” which took the Camera d’Or as the best first film at Cannes in 2006 and his 2015 film “The Treasure,” which won the Un Certain Talent award in UCR.

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The new film is about Cristi, a police officer who comes to Gomera, a rocky outcropping described as “the jewel of the Canary Islands” by a chirpy tour guide. He’s been sent to help free an imprisoned businessman, Zsolt, but first he has to learn a local language that consists entirely of whistling; the idea is that if he knows it, he can communicate without tipping off the various private and governmental forces who are tracking and watching his every move.

The whistling language is ridiculous but presented with the utmost earnestness (and conveniently subtitled). Cristi’s mission, though, is all but doomed from the start. Nobody trusts anybody else, everybody is cutting deals and making double-crosses at every opportunity, and Cristi is under such close scrutiny that the colleague who recruits him has to pose as a high-priced hooker for the surveillance cameras in his house. (She does a thorough and convincing job.)

The labyrinthine plot can be hard to follow, but the deadpan humor keeps things moving. Porumboiu is in a playful mood from the moment the film opens with Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” blasting on the soundtrack to the “Psycho” reference that pops up in violent scene near the end.

Nobody’s innocent, hardly anybody survives and the ride is stylish fun the whole bloody way.

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Romania has a unique culture, which is the product of its geography and of its distinct historical evolution. Like Romanians themselves, it is defined as the meeting point of three regions: Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, but cannot be truly included in any of them. The Romanian identity formed on a substratum of mixed Roman and quite possibly Dacian elements, with numerous other influences. During late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the major influences came from the Slavic peoples who migrated and settled in near Romania; from medieval Greeks, and the Byzantine Empire; from a long domination by the Ottoman Empire; from the Hungarians; and from the Germans living in Transylvania. Modern Romanian culture emerged and developed over roughly the last 250 years under a strong influence from Western Europe, particularly French, and German culture. Romania's history has been full of rebounds: the culturally productive epochs were those of stability, when the people proved quite an impressive resourcefulness in making up for less propitious periods and were able to rejoin the mainstream of European culture. This stands true for the years after the Phanariote-Ottoman period, at the beginning of the 19th century, when Romanians had a favourable historical context and chose the Western way of life, mainly French model, which they pursued steadily and at a very fast pace. From the end of the 18th century, the sons of the upper classes started having their education in Paris, and French became (and was until the communist years) a genuine second language of culture for Romanians. The modeling role of France especially in the fields of political ideas, administration and law, as well as in literature was paralleled, from the mid-19th century down to World War I, by German culture. That was true especially in Moldavia, whose many intellectuals studied in Berlin. In Transylvania and the Banat, the Habsburg rule and the presence of the ethnic German population, in the local communities, triggered constant relationships with the German world not only at a cultural level but in daily life as well. The influence of the German space was felt especially in the humanities (philosophy, logics, philology, history) and technical sciences.

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