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Silviu, a young man who has spent years in a youth penitentiary, is granted release. Before he can leave, his mother returns to Romania to bring his little brother to Italy with her, despite Silviu's objections. He meets a young woman, Ana, who is working on a research project in the prison, and becomes interested in her. In his desperation Silviu resorts to violence, and Ana becomes his hostage. Written by
Peter Brandt Nielsen
How far you can you go recruiting on-the-scene actors? Director Danny Boyle tried to use real drug addicts in Granton, Edinburgh, when he started making Trainspotting. Until crew were physically threatened and told to provide hard drugs or else. Tarantino took on ex-criminal Ed Bunker ('Mr Blue') to give Reservoir Dogs an authentic look. But assembling a cast from real convicts? Which is what director Florin Serban does in If I Want to Whistle I Whistle.
Although violence, if it occurs, does happen with lightning realism, it's the psychological threat, and switching convincingly from innocent charm to frightening killer, which portrays the crim's survival instincts so much more effectively.
Our story centres around a youth who blames his whorish mother for a bad upbringing. He wants two things just now in life. To save a sibling (whom he raised for eight years) from his own dissolute fate; and maybe to enjoy the real company of a sweet and attractive young prison trainee. To be 'normal.' To get married or sit in freedom with a beautiful girl enjoying a coffee on the outside. Good impulses you might think. But the excessive, violent and life-threatening means that this youngster might go to in achieving them challenges our sympathies.
Serban adapted a theatre play, incorporating elements in an acting workshop at Minors' and Youth Penitentiaries in Romania over a couple of months. "The most important things that we kept were the spirit and attitude of the inmates, the bold, uncompromising, somehow childish way of thinking and jumping into action without caring too much for the consequences. The determination of reaching a goal no matter what it takes to get there." Even his two main leads are new to acting and learn on the job remarkable for such impressive performances.
Eighteen-year-old Chiscan has initial warmth that makes you notice him in a crowd. A charismatic but tough cookie, holding his own to get on with the other inmates. A four year sentence should end in 15 days if he stays out of trouble. Not long enough to prevent his brother from being taken abroad. Meanwhile, he must negotiate blackmail threats from other inmates to which his imminent release makes him vulnerable. A low level of threat pervades the film till hell kicks loose. We wonder when it will erupt. When it does so, it happens without warning and not the way we expect.
The absence of distracting background music and sincere performances help to make this film very engaging and watchable. The plot remains continuously unpredictable. An appearance among the staff of Ana, trainee and sociology student, adds more to the mix than men left unfazed by teenage hormones. We sense a physical attraction that could go horribly wrong. Our emotional allegiance shifts as the film gathers pace like gears crashing without a clutch. Everyone has faults, staff and prisoners. I look for the person I can most identify as 'normal.' Like Ana (professionally and morally), it's as if I want mentally to encourage good threads within someone but protected from errors of judgement.
The lasting fascination of If I Want to Whistle I Whistle is seeing into the mind of someone in this way. Someone who can summon lightning reflexes. Display real or threatened extreme brutality. Become horrifically highly focused to achieve a result, however crazy. The movie won a Silver Bear at this year's (2010) prestigious Berlin International Film Festival. Pistireanu George, who plays Chiscan Silviu, had his first chance to act and equipped himself prodigiously (He has since become a first year student at the National University of Theatre and Film from Bucharest.) Florin Serban plans to open an acting school for people who never had anything to do with acting. "For somebody who has only heard that they are good at nothing and less than a dog in the street, it's a huge thing to realize that he can engage an audience with his simple presence, with one smile, one gesture and that he can make 200 people laugh or shiver at once." He believes deeply in acting as a healing process. "I imagine a place where people can act out their inner demons and explore places that can only be dreamt of." The film is low budget one and to an extent experimental. It suffers from being art-house niche and not being able to tackle themes in a more universal manner. But at the end you feel you have gone away with real insights into the mind of dangerous young offenders.
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