Wednesday, January 5, 2011

NYT: Freedom Is No Guarantee for a Happily Ever After

January 4, 2011
Freedom Is No Guarantee for a Happily Ever After

“If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” Romania’s official submission for the best foreign-language film Oscar, is a study in confinement. Like many other recent Romanian films — Cristi Puiu’s “Stuff and Dough,” Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” or Radu Muntean’s “Boogie” — it trails after a young protagonist whose choices are drastically limited and not very promising. Silviu, an 18-year-old inmate at a juvenile prison in a drab rural area, is a few weeks from the end of a four-year sentence, but the idea that his release will bring any kind of freedom seems like a delusion or a cruel joke.

Played by a nonprofessional actor named George Pistereanu, whose sensitive eyes soften his impassive, bullish physical presence, Silviu is at the end of a childhood that has hardened him without quite destroying his humanity. He is tough and angry, but he also seems a little softer than some of his fellow prisoners. When his younger brother, Marius (Marian Bratu), visits, Silviu displays a capacity for tenderness and a streak of boyish naïveté, which are both on display later when he flirts with Ana (Ada Condeescu), a social work student who has come to conduct a prerelease interview.

For the most part, the director, Florin Serban, sticks to the look and texture of contemporary European realism, allowing Silviu’s story to emerge slowly and organically out of the details of his existence. The casual belligerence of the guards and the bureaucratic impatience of the warden (Mihai Constantin) are keenly observed, as is the volatile mixture of camaraderie and bullying that defines life in the prison’s dormitories, mess halls and work sites.

Mr. Serban is a dutiful student of cinematic naturalism, and “If I Want to Whistle,” his first feature, is a worthy example of the kind of ground-level, conscientious storytelling that fills up festival programs across Europe. (The film won prizes last year in Berlin and Cluj, home of the Transylvania International Film Festival). His reliance on hand-held tracking shots that train the viewer’s gaze on the back of Mr. Pistereanu’s head suggests familiarity with the work of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, but imitating one of their visual signatures does not, by itself, impart the mixture of concrete detail and spiritual gravity that has made the Dardennes heroes of world cinema.

Instead, Mr. Serban and Catalin Mitulescu (a producer who wrote the screenplay with him), adapting a play by Andreea Valean, introduce elements of melodrama and suspense that raise the dramatic temperature at some cost to the film’s lasting power. When Silviu learns that his mother (Clara Voda) plans to take Marius with her to Italy — where she, like hundreds of thousands of other Romanians, can seek a better life — he reacts with panic and fury. And his inability to prevent what he sees as the destruction of his family and his future drives him to a desperate act that turns the last third of “If I Want to Whistle” into something like a nerve-racking, grimly absurd replay of “Dog Day Afternoon.”

But as the movie becomes more explosive — and more demanding of its cast — it loses some of the quiet, careful intensity that made Silviu’s situation worth attending to in the first place. The seams of the narrative start to show, and by the end you are more aware of the filmmakers’ ideas than of the character’s life.


Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.

Directed by Florin Serban; written by Catalin Mitulescu and Mr. Serban, based on the play “Eu Cand Vreau Sa Fluier, Fluier” by Andreea Valean; director of photography, Marius Panduru; edited by Catalin F. Cristutiu and Sorin Baican; production design by Ana Ioneci; costumes by Augustina Stanciu; produced by Catalin Mitulescu and Daniel Mitulescu; released by Film Movement. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: George Pistereanu (Silviu), Ada Condeescu (Ana), Clara Voda (Mother), Mihai Constantin (warden), Marian Bratu (the Brother) and Chilibar Papan (Ursu).

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