Young Offender

Florin Serban, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 94 minutes.

AN ARRESTING CONTRIBUTION to the increasingly evident “new wave” in Romanian cinema, Florin Serban’s remarkably assured debut feature, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, makes effective use of prison drama conventions to create an impressive portrait of a youthful offender and to introduce a charismatic new actor to the screen. Based on a play, the film has dramatic focus and a temporal urgency that builds with quiet intensity. Though less than two weeks away, eighteen-year old Silviu’s parole is jeopardized when he learns that the mother who abandoned him eight years earlier is about to take the little brother he has raised to Italy with her. Determined to prevent this, Silviu appeals to an understanding warden for a day’s leave; makes frantic deals he cannot honor with a fellow prisoner in exchange for use of a cell phone; and finally resorts to violence that will no doubt result in extended, if not permanent, incarceration. There is an additional though ambiguous suggestion that the dormitory atmosphere where the men sleep facilitates sexual humiliation and that Silviu may be one of its victims.

A volatile but sympathetic protagonist, Silviu is played by George Pistereanu, a nonprofessional still in high school when Serban discovered him. With a natural ability to project charm and threat in a single, wide-eyed glance, the young actor easily embodies Silviu’s cauldron of suppressed rage and unpredictability, fusing the cool single-mindedness of Bresson’s Michel (in Pickpocket [1959]) with the personality and impetuousness of a young Steve McQueen. Genuinely drawn to Ana, an attractive and personable social worker, he is no less frightening holding a shard of glass to her throat and bashing in a guard’s head to compel the warden to call his mother and give him a car to leave the prison so he can take the same Ana out for coffee.

The thirty-six-year-old Serban, having completed a university film program in Romania, then studied directing at New York’s Columbia University, where he also taught film history and theory. Although he claims to “love” Bresson, Serban’s filmmaking style and indulgence with actors could not be more opposed. His restless, handheld camera rarely abandons Silviu’s perspective, repeatedly dogging his tracks by following the back of the actor’s head in close-up, an effect that lends the character an illusory power. This is counteracted by shots of Silviu running toward the prison exit while the camera remains behind as if to register the futility of his efforts. Similarly, when he strains to look beyond the fence to see his brother getting into his mother’s car, the viewer, like Silviu, is limited by an extreme long shot. Though this restrictive technique can often prove forced and monotonous in first features, Serban’s control and purpose are never in question. In the penultimate scene, framed as a two-shot, Silviu sits quietly with Ana in a café, orders another coffee, then leaves. While she waits, the film cuts to an extreme long shot of Silviu walking back to the prison as approaching police sirens wail offscreen. After the authorities cuff him and drive off, the image, for the first time free of Silviu’s desperate but fruitless energy, luxuriates in a serenely still shot of the highway, a field, and the sky as the credits unfurl.

I’d like to believe that the inherent contradictions of Serban’s avowed influences—besides Bresson, he loves Almodóvar, and “can’t wait to get old and make movies like Ozu” but for the moment wants “to make a movie like Gladiator”—are the result of an omnivorous, Tarantino-like appetite for all cinema. But does the world need another sword-and-sandal epic? Or, for that matter, another Almodóvar? My hope is that Serban will apply his considerable filmmaking talents and flair for directing actors to more impassioned accounts of the socially misdirected young people in Romania with whom he clearly seems able to empathize.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle plays January 5–18 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.