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If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle | Review

Juvie Blues: Berlin Silver Bear Winner is a Gritty Drama

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is yet another of those gritty, hyper-real dramas coming out of Romania these days, but it’s a style that seems custom made for this tough and bitter narrative. Set in a penitentiary – an exceedingly relaxed one by North American standards – this Berlinale winner explores a particularly tortured mother/son relationship and by the time all is said and done, audiences will be keenly aware of the dire consequences of careless parenting.

Here we meet young Silviu (the intriguing George Pistereanu), an imposing 18 year old with the lanky, muscular build of an NBA forward. Silviu is reaching the end of a four year sentence for an unknown crime, and is scheduled to taste sweet freedom in a mere 15 days. But an unfamiliar and scary world awaits him, a world made even more uncertain by the recent return of his free-spirited mother (Clara Voda) who has spent the last few years building a new life for herself in Italy.

Caught in the middle is Silviu’s little brother Marius (Marian Bratu), a grammar school innocent forced into a foster home by Silviu’s incarceration and Mom’s flightiness. She now wants to take Marius back with her to Italy and Silviu fears that she will once again abandon the child as soon as the novelty wears off. And Silviu knows first-hand the dangers Marius would face in that scenario.

Director Florian Serban, making his feature film debut, manages to establish this emotional flashpoint in a concise, and quite effective, visual shorthand. Painful layers of experience and intimately shared family history are conveyed with a minimum of dialogue. Indeed, the entire film is approached as though Serban’s talented actors were charging by the word. With gesture and facial expression, Serban is able to coax a complete and quite wrenching backstory out of just a few scenes notable only for their Spartan dramatics.

This technique is enhanced by cinematographer Marius Panduru’s convincing evocation of available light, as each scene is staged in the proximity large windows – indeed, this may be the most cheerfully lighted prison in recent film history – and that gives viewers an exceptionally good look at Pistereanu’s raging internal debates. Interestingly enough, in Romanian prisons the inmates are allowed to wear their own clothes and the resulting tableau of blue jeans and soccer team jackets give Sliviu and his fellow prisoners a refreshing sense of individuality. No doubt this was critical to Serban’s efforts to give each of the prisoners a distinct personality and character.

When a group of graduate students descend on the prison to conduct a psychological survey, Silviu falls under the spell of a dreamy, doe-eyed coed named Ana (Ada Codeescu), who sparks sunny and deluded thoughts of romantic redemption in Silviu’s cloistered soul. Like Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver, this encounter causes Silviu to compartmentalize his life into a series pre-release tasks and duties to be performed. And in this case he ultimately confuses the objects of his passion. The result is a mental and emotional mash-up of goals, aspirations and intentions, with potentially deadly ramifications.

Given the film’s stark minimalism, the shocking and somewhat histrionic climax threatens credibility, but Serban and Pistereanu manage to somehow pull it off. The film’s quiet and intentionally anti-climactic denouement is handled with utter brilliancy, and magically restores the viewer’s faith in the entire production. Catalin Mitulescu, director of the equally involving The Way I Spent the End of the World from a few years ago, serves as the Executive Producer and Co-Writer here, and clearly his sensibility is a major influence on the film’s execution. The Romanians are quietly building an intellectually engaging school of filmmaking, and cineastes who smugly ignore it do so at their own risk.

Rating 3 stars

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David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

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