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La gomera

La gomera

[…] Porumboiu loves to drain expressivity out of a situation but ratchet up the goofiness, which is useful for the purpose of a single joke but difficult to square internally with the characters.

[…] Robbing these characters not merely of their interiority but their agency within the narrative leaves these gestures appearing empty and calculated.

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While watching Cornelieu Porumboiu’s La Gomera, I thought a lot about the writer Raymond Chandler. In my spare time, I have been reading and re-reading Chandler’s novels and short stories. The more of his I read, the more I appreciate his ability to portray, among other things, the eddies and flows of resting thought. He invites us to take pleasure in his famous protagonist’s moments of restfulness and indecision as well as his decisive solving of labyrinthine criminal cases. He uses these moments as an ingenious tool to off-set the labour of providing us necessary story information. That way, we do not feel that he is moving pieces on a chess board but that his storytelling flows as a single coherent experience. Phillip Marlowe goes about the work of solving the crimes he has been tasked with as if they were household chores. Plot arrives from nowhere, like the blue bottle fly that buzzes around Marlow’s office at the start of The Little Sister and which seems to invite trouble, puncturing the moments of “leg dangling” calm in which Marlowe temporarily finds himself at the outset of these stories.

Porumboiu’s La Gomera doesn’t have much in common with Raymond Chandler’s work beyond certain surface similarities, yet the comparison – and the contrast – is a valuable one in figuring out why the former seems far less well-organised and pleasurable than the latter. Both men are funny but do not work in an explicitly comic register. Instead their style is an extended and bemused reaction to the contrivances of an ugly world. They use the crime genre as a passport into this underworld and as something to set their comic sensibility against. Chandler is deft at situating these occurrences in a real-seeming context, and Porumboiu – who isn’t without his considerable gifts as a filmmaker – isn’t. One key way that Chandler does what Porumboiu cannot is these portrayals and descriptions of down time on the part of his hero.

La Gomera, like a Chandler novel, begins with a moment of contemplation. A stoic policeman Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) stares out at the cliff face shores of the titular island Gomera, the smallest of the Spanish Canarias. Porumboiu loves to drain expressivity out of a situation but ratchet up the goofiness, which is useful for the purpose of a single joke but difficult to square internally with the characters. It is a style that served him best in last year’s Infinite Football, a wonderfully shaggy documentary about a Romanian government functionary whose ambition encompasses no less than the entire reinvention of the game of football. At the centre of La Gomera is the whistling language silbo gomero, used by Cristi’s criminal associates as a way to communicate without running the risk of detection by the police that are following them (and to whom Cristi reports). Like the game of infinite football, it is an elaborate flaunting of a warped thought process: the logic of such a crackpot way of thinking is irresolvable, and all the funnier for it.

Like Marlowe, Cristi is mostly impassive in the face of trouble. Unlike Marlowe he is corrupt, and his actions are those of a desperate man – desperate to make money, desperate to survive, desperate to evade capture. The film consists of his flailing attempts, like Porumboiu himself, to work both sides of the street. Cristi is opaque on the surface but distressed and mercurial beneath it; and while it works as a comic style, it creates an ever-present tension in the film that Porumboiu isn’t able to resolve. I kept thinking that Chandler’s protagonist has an internal consistency that Cristi lacks, and is therefore far more compelling. In those novels, so well-integrated are they as works of art, the world itself seems to reflect Marlowe’s dry, cynical, but fundamentally moral worldview.

Of course, La Gomera is also cynical: just about every person in it has no qualms about cheating and robbing and lying their way out of each and every trap they find themselves ensnared in, but its director is too concerned with the vagaries of plot to spend any time with his characters. Under this regime of pure plot transmission, they become mere pawns in his machine, whereas even within the most strained and intense passages of his stories, Chandler makes space for his laconic hero to turn over events in his mind, to disdain the narrative machinery in which he inexplicably finds himself enmeshed. This freights even the more pulpier elements necessary to the crime genre with an engaged thoughtfulness and winks at us that Chandler knows what he is doing. We get not only the situation but Marlowe’s (and implicitly his creator’s) perspective on it.

As a narrator, Porumboiu withholds plot information in a more conventional manner, hoping that we will merely enjoy the twists and turns of double-allegiances and double-crosses inherent to the form. In an early scene, we are introduced to the beautiful Gilda (Catrinel Menghia) as she arrives at Cristi’s apartment. It is a very funny scene: she cynically impersonates a sex worker, having would-be sex with Cristi in order to pass him a secret envelope of information while cameras are trained on his apartment. Later, and only when it is called for by the narrative, Porumboiu draws on a reserve of sentiment between the two that the film has made no effort to cultivate. These people are empty vessels, and it is hard to read the ending as anything other than a vain attempt to conjure a rabbit from a hat. Robbing these characters not merely of their interiority but their agency within the narrative leaves these gestures appearing empty and calculated. In contrast, Chandler can and does dish out the pleasures of the genre – the last acts of his novels are frequently dominated by Marlowe’s elegant and satisfying explanations of the crime at hand, but in so doing he uncovers a vast underground reservoir of emotion that has an outsized effect, unlike in La Gomera, only because it has been embedded within his jaded but just outlook on the world.

First published: November 21, 2019

La gomera – The Whistlers | Film | Corneliu Porumboiu | RO-FR-DE-SU 2019 | 98’ | Geneva International Film Festival 2019

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