Under the Communist regime, incarceration in Romania used to be a brutal, hopeless proposition. Prison is still prison for one youthful offender, but his family is a more pressing problem in Florin Serban’s If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle (trailer here), Romania’s official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.
Chiscan Silviu has only two weeks left to serve in his juvenile boot camp-prison. As Whistle opens, he seems almost comfortable with the work routine. Unfortunately, everything changes when his younger brother appears for an unscheduled visit. Evidently, their long absent mother has suddenly decided to reappear, offering to take the younger brother to Italy with her, shortly before Silviu’s imminent release. It is safe to say the juvie inmate does not take the news well.
When Silviu catches a glimpse of dear old mom waiting for his brother, he more or less flips. Though the warden tries his best to paper over Silviu’s sudden acting-out, it is clear the young man is rushing towards something rash. The presence of a beautiful social worker well out of his league only stirs the pot more.
Essentially on-screen the entire film, George Pistereanu maintains quite an intensity level. He looks and feels right as a tough kid with a lot of potential, as well as a considerable capacity for dangerous, self-destructive behavior. It is pretty assured work for a high schooler in his first professional part.
Shot in a gritty, vérité style, Serban’s approach is very much in keeping with the hallmarks of the so-called Romanian New Wave. However, unlike other recent products of the movement, Whistle starts at point A and proceeds in an orderly fashion to point B, with a fair number of identifiably dramatic events happening in between. At a manageable ninety-four minutes, it is also refreshingly focused. Indeed, if not cinematic comfort food, Whistle is a relatively accessible introduction to the Romanian Nouvelle Vague.
Granted, Whistle is dark and grungy, but it offers viewers far more hooks to hold onto then some Romanian imports slated for release this year. Aside from a rather abrupt “so that’s that” conclusion, Serban’s execution is tight and deliberate. A film and a lead performance worthy of cineaste respect, Whistle begins its New York run this Wednesday (1/5) at Film Forum, with Serban appearing in-person for the opening night screening.