Trying to keep control of even a few minutes, the young inmate is returned again and again to the reality that he has none.
At first glance, Silviu (George Piştereanu) looks familiar, like a lot of other teens. Seated on a bench alongside a collection of other boys, his hair is cut close and his eyes lively. He jostles and smiles, then reaches up to cast an arm casually around his mate's shoulder: now you see that he's wearing handcuffs.
So, Silviu isn't quite like most other kids. At 18, he's got just two more weeks at a juvenile detention center. He's also got a lot on his mind. His father's in the hospital, which has left his little brother Marius (Marian Bratu) alone at home -- or at least that's what Silviu believes until Marius comes to see him. It turns out that their mother (Clara Voda) is visiting from Italy, where she's been living; worse, in Silviu's view, she's decided to take Marius back with her.
On hearing this news, Silviu's face falls, a striking change in his demeanor that sets in motion the remarkably absorbing drama of If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier). That is, most of what happens in Florin Serban's first feature has to do with Silviu's sorting out dilemmas that are beyond his control. Based on a play by Andreea Valean, Serban and Catalin Mitulescu's screenplay offers little in the way of expansive dialogue or psychological deep-digging. Instead, it focuses on Silviu's ever-shifting current state.
Most often, this state is conveyed wordlessly by first-time actor Piştereanu, in an anxious gaze out a window or by the set of his shoulders as he stands before the warden (Mihai Constantin). Slight gestures or averted glances show that Silviu is frustrated not only by his physical incarceration but also by his lack of control: his actions are monitored by guards and limited by fellow inmates, his hopes for what might happen when he's "free" are dashed when he spots his mother in the parking lot, where she's waiting while Marius has come inside to see him.
During this first non-encounter, the camera keeps close on Silviu, following from over his shoulder as he trots outside, shifting his weight and straining to glimpse the woman he hasn't seen for years. When she comes to see him herself, they sit across from each other at an institutional table. The meeting becomes increasingly tense, as he asks her not to take Marius away: "I want him to come with me," she says, "And when you're free you can come as well." He refuses, "Ill never join you," then reveals his reasons, namely, his own experience with her as a child, abandoned repeatedly, whenever, he says, "you found a new guy." His voice turns hard as he insists, "You're a fucking whore." She slaps him, more than once, he juts his chin, the guard tries to intervene. "It was you who destroyed me," Silviu rages, not quite loudly, "Because I didn’t know what to do and now you're back and you hit me after eight fucking years." He turns to his little brother: "If you're not there when I come home, I'll fucking kill you all." Marius' face goes pale.
This explosion hints at what's bothering Silviu, the fears and frustrations that shape his daily life. When his mother and Marius leave the prison, Silviu turns increasingly desperate -- to use another boy's (illicit) cell phone, to gain permission from the warden to go home for just a day before his actual release, to solicit the attention of a pretty student, Ana (Ada Condeescu), working with a group of volunteers to administer reading and writing tests to inmates. Observing these disparate pieces of Silviu's experience, the film, Romania's entry for the 2011 foreign-film Oscar, doesn't make them fit so much as it exposes his constant confusion.
Trying to keep control of even a few minutes, the boy is returned again and again to the reality that he has none, that his every movement -- what he eats, the music piped in to the dining hall, the hours he's in bed or on a work-shift -- is decided for him. Restriction defines him, and his inability to articulate his needs, even basic needs, makes him feel even more restrained. When Ana smiles shyly, he might be moved, but when her supervisor moves her to another table, Silviu watches her, his eyes darkening: suddenly, the girl embodies what he can't reach.
Even when Silviu finds what seems his last limit, If I Want to Whistle maintains a kind of observational distance. His eruption leads to blood and chaos, but still, he can't get outside himself, he can't see his way to the end ordained by his beginning.