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REVIEW – If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (2010)

August 23, 2012

FilmJuice have my review of Florin Serban’s debut feature If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. Nominated for the Berlin Golden Bear and winner of the Jury Prize Silver Bear, Serban’s film is being marketed as the latest opus to emerge from the fecund soil of the Romanian New Wave. High praise indeed given that that particular wave produced not only Cristi Poiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective but also Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Unfortunately, while Serban’s film does an excellent job of re-creating the corridorpunk aesthetic that has thus-far dominated the Romanian New Wave, the film itself is really nothing more than a generic prison thriller:

The problem is that while films like Police, Adjective and The Death of Mr Lazarescu used a very specific set of Romanian problems to explore what it is like to be a contemporary Romanian, Serban’s film is really nothing more than the sort of generic prison movie that could have been made anywhere. Generic in plot and unoriginal in aesthetic sensibility, Serban’s debut is a largely pointless addition to an increasingly over-loaded bandwagon. Indeed, while the film’s gritty visuals and social realism may have helped to secure international distribution, they do absolutely nothing for the film’s message or emotional impact.

Some critics have suggested that If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is proof that we are close to reaching the bottom of the Romanian New Wave barrel and that all the talent in that particular scene has now been discovered leaving only the hacks and the wannabes. Though I have a certain amount of sympathy for this viewpoint, I think the decision to load If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle onto the Romanian New Wave bandwagon speaks of a more profound malaise with world cinema.

Consider the following hypothetical situation: You are a young Romanian who has just graduated from film school at a time when critics all over the world are singing hosannas to your national cinema. All over the world, people are paying to see Romanian film and you know that, as a young Romanian film director, chances are that you can score a breakthrough hit. However, in order to produce a breakthrough hit and launch your career, you need to attach yourself to this national cinema that everyone is raving about. Q: What is the best way of accomplishing this? A: By making the film you want to make and combining it with familiar tropes. Result: A thriller with a corridorpunk aesthetic.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is best understood as a professional calling card. A demonstration of technical prowess and aesthetic pragmatism that showcases Serban’s ability to adopt popular styles in order to get a film made. Much like Tom Waller’s Soi Cowboy, it is proof that Serban can be a good cultural citizen and produce the type of film expected of young Romanian film directors. I suspect his next film will be not only better but also a good deal more personal. Florin Serban is clearly one to watch.

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