A bit like a smaller budget A Prophet, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is about developing partnerships and alliances while staying alive in prison.
[Well, it's about much more than that, but for my reasoning, that's a good place to start.]
It's about forming bonds that keep you alive for now, and knowing how to get the things you need while shut away. That the jail is for older teenage boys makes it all the more fascinating from a story point of view.
I wasn't a huge fan of A Prophet, which, much to my own dismay, bored me to tears. The boys' jail in If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle finds a soft spot in me, even though I realize its problems.
You can be tough, you can know how to handle yourself with the bad boys -- you can stand up but not out in the hostile detention center where you live -- you can do all this, and be all that, but sometimes the simple crack of timing is what will make you or break you on the inside. The odd timing of events in central character Silviu's life is what I like about this story.
Eighteen year-old Silviu has fifteen days left in his four year sentence. He's been a good kid to this point -- even the warden lets us know it in one of the first key scenes when he tells Silviu to stay on the good path he's been on.
But sometimes life is more than the path we've been on. It's a moment by moment dealing with what's currently happening -- the now. Whether you meet the right person at the right time, or make that good business deal, or get that promotion that was necessary to save a key relationship -- there are the moment by moment battles that not only define us now, but will shape us down the road, too.
Is it predestination or free will that brings Silviu a visit from his long lost mom, saying she's taking his younger brother to Italy in a week? Still in jail, counting the days until he gets out, and knowing how rotten mom actually is, Silviu sits and waits. And waits. And waits.
In some ways, this Romanian low-budget drama reminds me of a title I know I've seen in many films before. The title is Boiling Point. As Silviu waits, dealing with emotional turmoil and inmates that pick at him like a festering sore, we watch the heat turn up with each passing day, the blood in his veins subtly starting to boil.
Silviu went away to boy's prison. That's his past. He can do nothing about that now. But the thing that's killing him now is knowing how his mom took him twice to Italy before -- he thinks she was simply lonely -- and that both times, she shacked up with a new man and sent Silviu back to Romania to fend for himself for years. He blames her for whatever went wrong in his life, how he ended up as a number in the system. And maybe partially, that is true. He can't do anything about his past, whatever the reasons were for his troubles, but how can he still be here for fifteen days when his mom is taking little brother next week?
Knowing he only has a short time left and doesn't want to wreck being set free, he also experiences the harassment of inmates exploiting his situation, making him appear weaker in their eyes. So when mom finally does visit to talk about it all, he's like a lit bomb ready to go off immediately. He explodes into a rage, calling her a "fucking whore," screaming that he'll kill her and his little brother, in a scene that sets the emotional tone for the rest of the story. It's an unsettling moment where the film changes somewhat from The Shawshank Redemption to Taxi Driver fueled by resentment and hatred and hostage negotiations.
I'm not going to say this is the best recent Romanian film, or that it even fits into the catalogue of the "Romanian new wave," whatever that is. I will say that for a recent US theatrical and Film Movement release, it's much better than cable reruns of "Law & Order" or "CSI", and that there are some powerful performances on display. But it's a movie that could have delved much deeper into its issues. I guess when I think about everything that goes down here, I simply wonder about "timing," and how it works everywhere else. If anything, that the film gets me to think makes it worth watching more than once.