A Romanian prison drama where confinement extends beyond jailhouse walls, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle casts its youth-reformatory setting as one of several cages holding its angry protagonist. Eighteen-year-old Silviu (George Pistereanu) isn't just physically incarcerated, he's emotionally blocked and functionally powerless, boiling over with frustration at the reappearance of his deadbeat mother. She's returned from Italy to lay claim to his younger brother, the only person for whom he seems capable of showing affection.
Rather than focus on the grueling toll of hard time, the film picks up in the last days of Silviu's sentence, capturing the queasy balance between a torturous existence and a hopeless future. Because he's a poor, convicted felon in a country where opportunities are limited to begin with, his prospects seem decidedly bleak. His mother, a migrant worker making a living in wealthier European countries, has left him internally scarred, having dragged him around for comfort as a young child, forcing him to raise himself. Asked to complete an exit survey, his blank stares and evasive answers reveal the frightening gulf that stretches out before him.
Director Florin Serban's first film doesn't have the verve of the best of recent Romanian cinema, but it's a strong effort that makes the most of its limited ambition. As a work of social documentation it adheres to the standard guidelines, with the requisite nonprofessional actors, evocative shaky cam, and Dardennes-aping over-the-shoulder shots. But its solemn consideration of the children of immigrant workers, whose diaspora has surely left all kinds of emotional wreckage back home, is smart and well played. Serban has an eye for sharp, tensely rendered moments, like a furtive cell-phone call made while on work detail or a quietly brutal sexual assault, that convey abundant information without calling attention to themselves.
Mostly, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is a distressing portrayal of how basically good people can be affected by adverse circumstances. Silviu's incipient attraction to Ana, the beautiful volunteer worker conducting his exit survey, is eventually turned into something ugly, as she becomes symbolic of all the things he'll never have. He's powerless to stop his mother, who's planning to whisk away his brother before he's released, and baited by the misogynistic talk of his fellow inmates, who roughly jeer and boast.
Before long he's dug himself an even deeper hole, provoking a chain of events that ends with him holding Ana hostage, testing her throat with a piece of broken glass. The fluid pacing of these events acts a testament to how adroitly this film occupies what could be uninspiring territory, and how oppression can prematurely smother the human spirit, transforming the heady brew of youth into a muddied cocktail of rage and despair.