If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier)

Romania (2010) Dir. Florin Serban

Two weeks before his release from prison, youth offender Silviu (George Piştereanu) receives a visit from his younger brother (Marian Bratu) with news that their estranged mother (Clara Voda) has returned from Italy after an absence of eight years, while their father has been in hospital. She intends to take the younger brother back to Italy in the next seven days with her which Silviu vehemently opposes. Upon his leaving, Silviu notices that his brother came with his mother. With time against him, Silviu resorts to violence, holding a young social worker Ana (Ada Condeescu) hostage to gain his release.

With its modern history steeped in the fallout of the end of the communist reign and its subsequent shift towards democracy, Romanian cinema has produced some hard hitting social dramas over the past few years, such as the sublime but tragic The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or the emotionally potent 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. In his second film Florin Serban looks to join the ranks alongside those two mighty films, and while he doesn’t quite hit the same heady heights the promise that such artistic success is almost inevitable is most certainly there.

Shot in a very low key Cinéma vérité style, this film explores the plight of a young man who is trying to do right by his younger brother by going about it the wrong way. Silviu’s crime, which earned him a four years sentence, remains undisclosed but it is clear he is not the worst offender of the inmates, blaming his criminal behaviour on his mother’s constantly abandoning him and his brother for her latest bonk. Fearing his younger brother will turn out the same Silviu calls his mother in for a visit which ends with insults traded and faces slapped. With time running out, Silviu tries to persuade the warden (Mihai Constantin) to grant him a day release but is refused, shredding another nerve inside the head of this desperate lad.

Meanwhile Silviu takes a shine to Ana, the social worker brought into the prison to help the inmates fill out their paperwork ahead of their release interview, becoming a beacon of hope for him. That Ana should be Silviu’s hostage doesn’t seem to be completely by design alternating as he does, between chatting her up and threatening to kill her for his ransom demands. Ana is the calming influence that also provides Silviu with an aspiration to better his life once outside – indeed Silviu asks Ana out for a coffee which she feels somewhat obliged to agree too despite already having a boyfriend, which leads to a quietly poetic final act when it hits home for Silviu exactly what he has done. It’s an oblique ending that leaves us no clues as to how the conflict is resolved which is admittedly frustrating.

Serban took a huge risk in hiring real criminals to make up his cast of inmates which must have been scary for impressive debuting actor George Piştereanu, but it makes for a realistic atmosphere in the prison scenes. In contrast to other prisons, this one is fairly laid back and looks more like a youth hostel with everyone in a dorm rather than cells, no steel bars on the doors and no convict uniforms either. The usual prohibitions are in place (mobile phones, drinks etc) but otherwise there is less of the austerity and internal antagonism – outside of alone incident when Silviu gets on the wrong side of one nasty inmate – that we’re accustomed to seeing in prison dramas.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is a film that seems to have a lot to say but doesn’t quite get round to saying everything it wants to. What it does get to say is put across in an intense and natural style of storytelling, choosing not to judge or lead the audience into condemning Silviu for his actions but to understand the catalyst of desperation behind them. It won’t appeal to everyone with its subtle and minimalist approach, making this perfect fodder for anyone with a taste for understated contemporary world cinema.