With debut feature If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (2010), Romanian director Florin Şerban explores the youth penitentiaries of his home nation, presenting a closed system where the ruthless prosper and the more vulnerable are left to fend for themselves. The story (adapted for the screen from his own stage production of the same name) revolves around reserved detainee Silviu (George Pistereanu), who has just 5 days left to wait until his sentence ends and he can be reunited with his younger brother (Marian Bratu).
Silviu’s life is turned upside down, however, with the reappearance of his long-absent mother (Clara Voda), who plans to take his younger sibling – whom he has effectively raised – away with her to Italy before her eldest (who she dismisses as a mere ‘con’) is released. Enraged by this apparent betrayal, Silviu takes matters into his own hands and sets in motion a chain of dramatic events in order to safeguard his brother’s future.
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle’s stark, stripped-back cinematography and sparsely-scattered dialogue certainly has the desired effect, successfully creating an air of oppression and hopelessness within the detention facility. Silviu’s plight is clear and unenviable, backed into a corner from which he ultimately strikes out from. A romantic subplot is thrown in for good measure, and whilst the beautiful social worker Ana (Ada Condeescu) may initially appear redundant, her character plays a vital role in Silviu’s premature bid for freedom.
Pistereanu and Condeescu are undoubtedly the film’s two stand-out performers; cultivating a believable on-screen chemistry that is really tested to its limits in the narrative’s final third. Yet they are perhaps the only two remarkable features of an otherwise unremarkable – though highly competent – debut. Dramas centred on the youth justice system are nothing new (see Scum  and/or Karl Markovics’ recent release Breathing  for two superior examples, both old and new), and though Silviu’s situation is pitiable, it’s also overly-familiar.
As a showcase for young acting talent and a new filmmaking voice in the form of Şerban, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle makes its presence felt – albeit with a whisper, rather than a shout. However, the debut director will have to build on this partial success if he is to make his auteurial voice truly heard within contemporary Romanian cinema.