The latest film out of Romania opens on Wednesday at the IFC in New York. Directed by Florin Şerban, a 35-year-old Columbia University graduate, “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” shares many of the aspects of his country’s leading-edge film movement. American and Western European auteurs are strong influences on the movement despite its distinctly Romanian character. In an interview with Manhattan Chronicles, Şerban stated that “New York is the best place to be if you want to watch movies, films from all over the world, from different periods and tendencies, etc. ” Asked who he counts as major influences, he included Ken Loach. Indeed, one of the strongest recommendations for “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” is how much it reflects the best work of the British leftist director. Now that Romania’s romance with post-Stalinism is long forgotten, it is no surprise that the country’s filmmakers seek inspiration from artists well schooled in the class struggle.
Based on a play, “When I want to Whistle, I whistle” is a classic prison breakout movie that hearkens back to James Cagney’s “White Heat”. Filmed apparently on location at a Romanian juvenile prison and using actual convicts in supporting roles, the film has a gritty realism that departs from most prison melodramas past and present. The film has no musical score but there are key moments when a boom box or a chorus of prisoners supplies powerful dramatic accompaniment. Mostly, the accompaniment is the whistling of wind in the trees and the sounds of birds, sounding all the more plaintive in contrast to the draconian conditions of the prison.
The main character is Silviu, a tight-lipped and seemingly passive youth who has 15 days left on a 4-year robbery sentence. George Pistereanu, a non-professional but someone who has never been in prison, plays Silviu. Pistereanu delivers a memorable performance, starting off as a taut and mute ticking time bomb and finally exploding in the stunning climax of a very, very good film. At this point, I am obligated to supply a spoiler alert. Read no further, if you want to avoid learning about the stunning conclusion but certainly go see the movie at the IFC based on what you have read so far.
We learn that Silviu’s mother is a prostitute who plans to take his younger brother off to Italy with her. When she took Silviu on one of these trips when he was his brother’s age, she abandoned him as soon as she found a lover. He blames his misfortunes, including a life as a criminal, on her abuses and tells her that he will do anything to prevent his brother from suffering the same fate.
If Silviu’s family is a symbol of Romania’s economic distress, we meet some characters who appear to be enjoying a middle-class existence. The prisoners are being “studied” by a team of social workers who are determining their ability to function in post-prison life. One of them is Ana (Ada Condeescu), a beautiful young woman that Silviu develops a crush on. In the course of her interview with him, he says that there is not much difference between them and that if she met him outside of prison, she would enjoy drinking coffee with him on a date.
Desperate to thwart his mother from taking his younger brother to Italy, Silviu erupts at an interview session with Ana and takes her hostage. Unless his mother is brought to the prison to vow that the brother will be left at home, he will slash her throat with a shard of broken window glass. Despite his brutality toward Ana, it is clear that he still is attracted to her and would count a coffee date with her as fulfilling his fondest dreams, on a par with getting his mother out of his and his brother’s life.
For the longest time, Romania has been a poster child for the “what’s wrong with communism” contingent led by the insufferable Andrei Codrescu, an émigré who made a good living on NPR telling Americans how lucky they are not to live under Ceausescu. Times seem to be changing, no doubt hurried along by the failure of capitalism to deliver the goods.
For a report on current-day Romania that is gestating the conditions that inspired someone like Florin Şerban to consider the work of Ken Loach as an influence, I recommend Class struggle on the rise in Romania from the In Defense of Marxism website. Fred Weston writes:
In January 2007 Romania became a member of the EU. This was the final confirmation that western capitalists considered the country a fully-fledged market economy. Since the fall of the Ceauşescu regime in 1989 the country had adopted a series of measures, with large-scale privatisation and cuts in state subsidies, geared to transforming Romania into a capitalist country. Within five years the legal structures were in place and the country began a process of integration into world capitalism, and until 2008 foreign investment in the country had been increasing. That is when the trouble really started. The 2008 global financial crisis seriously affected the economy, pushing it into recession in 2009.
So long as the economy was booming, and with the added relief of emigration to other parts of the EU during the boom of the past decade, illusions in capitalism among some layers no doubt had increased. This also explained a reactionary political situation in the country. “Communism” seemed a thing of the past. This is not difficult to understand especially when one recalls the monstrous regime that governed the country under Ceauşescu.
And yet now that people in Romania have had a real taste of capitalism, not just in boom times, but in times of recession, opinions are changing. According to an opinion poll carried out by the “Institute Investigating the Crimes of Communism and the Memory of the Romanian Exile” – not exactly a Communist-friendly institution almost half of Romanians today, 49%, believe life was actually better under Ceauşescu! A higher standard of living and job security were given as the main arguments to sustain this opinion. Barely a quarter of the population believes conditions have improved since 1989.