“If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle”: Romania continues its cinematic resurgence

"If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" is a gripping prison drama with a magnetic James Dean-esque hero

Topics: Film Salon, Our Picks, Movies,

"If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle": Romania continues its cinematic resurgenceGeorge Pistereanu in "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle"

If you’ve been wondering what the deal is with all these Romanian movies — like, you’re curious, but apprehensive about the prospect of arduous, vitamin-enriched art — then the taut, utterly unpretentious prison yarn “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” from a young director named Florin Serban, might be a good place to start. This movie isn’t a post-Commie Romanian masterpiece along the lines of Cristian Mungiu’s terrific abortion-themed thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” or Cristi Puiu’s Dante-esque dark comedy “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” But it also isn’t as thematically daunting or gruesome as those films, and offers an introduction to the lean-and-mean, social-realist Romanian storytelling style that’s built around a charismatic young actor and a familiar genre. (On the other hand, if you’re already a devotee, you should know that Puiu’s “Aurora” and Radu Muntean’s “Tuesday, After Christmas,” last year’s festival hits from Romania, will reach our shores soon.)

Bedroom-eyed skinhead George Pistereanu plays a teenage offender named Silviu, who’s spent the last four years in a ramshackle juvenile facility somewhere in the countryside. As is customary in Romanian films, there’s a lot of focus on the bureaucracy and ineptitude that dominate everyday life in a country that’s still trying to catch up to contemporary Europe after decades under a backward-looking, repressive dictatorship. As the title suggests, Silviu is something of an existential antihero, a young man who has forged his own ethical compass without much help from the world, and is going to follow its dictates come hell or high water.

Although he’s both an ominous and seductive-looking fellow, trudging around the decrepit grounds in an ill-fitting tracksuit, Silviu has built up a good-kid reputation in prison, and is only two weeks away from release. That’s before his little brother, who’s no more than 11 or 12, shows up to tell him that their no-account mother is back in town, and wants to spirit him away to Italy. And before a doe-eyed, luscious-lipped college student named Ana (Ada Condeescu) arrives at the prison to interview Silviu, as part of some faintly condescending sociology research project.

When Silviu’s mother (Clara Voda) turns up in person, a blond, nervous type no older than 40, we finally get a little of the family back-story, but not all that much. We never learn why she left in the first place, or exactly why Silviu is in prison. (Generic answers to both: Because bad things happened.) Serban is ruthlessly focused on the present tense, and reveals Silviu’s mounting sense of distress entirely through his actions. Silviu willfully breaks prison rules, stages a tense confrontation with the sniggering would-be crime boss who runs his dormitory, borrows a clandestine cell phone at outrageous rates. (One phone call costs seven packs of cigarettes.) The film’s power stems largely from Silviu’s James Dean-like combination of physical menace and tender-hearted naiveté. In his only confessional moment, he tells a friend that he plans to marry Ana, whom he’s met exactly once, and imagines picking her up after work (and having an extended sexual workout in the car on the way home).

We can see Silviu’s violent explosion coming well before it arrives, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic or effective. Let’s just say that he, his mother and Ana all wind up in the same room, along with a critically injured guard, and that his mother has to face the fact that her oldest son is willing to throw his life away in an effort to keep her youngest son from her. And you needn’t worry that “When I Want to Whistle” ends in apocalyptic bloodshed or anything — Silviu may do bad and stupid things, but he isn’t a monster, and Serban closes the film on a note of haunting, ambiguous sadness. We’re never going to know whether Silviu is right about his mother; we only know she is forced to consider that he might be.

“If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with more cities and DVD release to follow.


More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>