Youthful offender, two years in juvenile detention and only a week from release, gets a visit from his dysfunctional family and flips out big-time in this memorable first feature from fertile Romania. For most of its 94 minutes, Florin Serban’s If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is straightforward and observational, using a largely non-professional cast to dramatize the prison routine and its sometimes mysterious hierarchy, as well as the pressures building inside the close-cropped skull of its handsome antihero, Silviu (neophyte actor George Pistereanu).
Understatement only heightens the sense of smoldering resentment. Self-contained Silviu, often shown in Dardenne-style back-of-the-head close-ups plowing through his confined world, is fatally unable to articulate his situation—a plight emphasized by the pretty young sociology student (Ada Condeescu) who arrives on a mission to interview the inmates. If I Want to Whistle is slack yet taut—tension builds whenever Serban hits the narrative pause button. Even once all hell finally breaks loose, the suspense is enhanced by lengthy stand-offs, real-time delays, and pervasive confusion on how to best handle a situation gone wildly out of control. The viewer is prompted to ponder the crisis’s possible (and unpredictable) resolution as well as the degree to which Silviu’s freak-out was premeditated. It’s a measure of the movie’s success that one oscillates between two despairs—noting the abject failure of the system and the utter futility of revolt.