Today: June 20, 2024

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle

Despite its apparent internationalism, world cinema is in fact a deeply conservative environment where known quantities and familiar names resonate far more clearly than either innovation or talent.

Despite its apparent internationalism, world cinema is in fact a deeply
conservative environment where known quantities and familiar names resonate far
more clearly than either innovation or talent.
One side effect of this
conservatism is that world cinema habitually overlooks entire cinematic cultures
for decades on end before suddenly ‘rediscovering’ said cultures and
celebrating them as ‘new waves’ of artistic excellence. These rediscoveries
generally result in a torrent of critical interest, festival invitations and
investment as industry types leap at the chance to cash in on the next-big
thing. Initially, this is a real boon for the culture in question as obscure
directors suddenly find it a lot easier to get their films made. Unfortunately,
once the PR machines of world cinema sink their teeth into a particular
culture, they prove somewhat reluctant to let go meaning that industry bods
will keep buying films from a particular country until all the talent has been
drained and the new wave is forced back down the beach by a combination of
critical fatigue and dwindling profit margins. We saw this in South Korea, we
saw this in Thailand and now we are seeing it in Romania. Florin Serban’s first film If
I Want To Whistle, I Whistle
is by no means a bad film but its tired
visuals and unimaginative plot would never have lead to an international
distribution deal were it not for successful Romanian films such as Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristian
’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
or Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective.

Silviu (George Pistereanu) is a young offender nearing the end of a
two-year prison sentence. Well-behaved and generally liked by the other
prisoners, Silviu’s daily routine is disrupted when his younger brother appears
and announces that their mother is planning on taking him to Italy. Suddenly
confronted by the possibility that he may no longer have a home to return to,
Silviu confronts his mother and reminds her that his criminality is a direct result
of his mother sending him back and forth between Romania and Italy as a child. George
Pistereanu imbues Silviu with both physical and emotional presence and the
hurt, anger and frustration that flow from him during Silviu’s confrontation
with his mother make for a genuinely spellbinding scene.

Unable to convince his mother of
her selfishness and incapable of explaining himself to either his fellow
inmates or the prison authorities, Silviu begins flailing around in search of
some means of forcing his mother to leave his brother at home. Insane with
grief and worry, Silviu eventually breaks down and grabs a hostage in a doomed
attempt to extract some promises from his mother. Doomed from the start, these
increasingly desperate and self-destructive choices provide a compelling if
somewhat unadventurous portrait of disenfranchised youth.

Serban’s film is the latest in a
series of films exploring the desolation of post-Communist Romania. Like all
the films associated with the Romanian New Wave, If I Want to Whistle, I
Whistle is filled with grubby-looking people in tracksuits navigating their way
through decaying concrete Labyrinths. The problem is that while films like
Police, Adjective and The Death of Mr Lazarescu used a very specific set of
Romanian problems to explore what it is like to be a contemporary Romanian, Serban’s
film is really nothing more than the sort of generic prison movie that could
have been made anywhere. Generic in plot and unoriginal in aesthetic sensibility,
Serban’s debut is a largely pointless addition to an increasingly over-loaded
bandwagon. Indeed, while the film’s gritty visuals and social realism may have
helped to secure international distribution, they do absolutely nothing for the
film’s message or emotional impact.

Severed from its associations with
the films of the Romanian New Wave, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is a well
paced, competently made but ultimately forgettable genre flick enlivened by a
muscular central performance. Neither as gripping as Daniel Monzon’s Cell 211,
as epic as Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, or as insightful as Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Serban’s debut feature
is almost entirely average.

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