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.