Adapted from a play by Andreea Valean (but not feeling truly stagy until the very end, my guess being that they were more lenient in the transposition of the beginning), the film (the Best Foreign Film Oscar submission from Romania) follows Silviu (George Pistereanu), who's been stuck in a juvenile penitentiary for 8 years. He's apparently not caused too much of a fuss and has even helped out the head in naming names when the time was right. As the film opens, Silviu is left with under a month until he's set to be let go and seems to be cruising along. That's until his younger brother shows up telling him that he's going to be taken away to Italy by the two's absent mother. We learn (through a pretty excellent confrontation scene that signals that a change is coming) that Silviu's childhood was ruined by his mother's careless promiscuity and see that Silviu fears that his brother will experience the same neglect (and may end up in jail like he is).
The screenwriters' (and by way of virtue playwright's) command of exposition is superb. With (I believe) not ever naming the crime that Silviu committed (which is a common MO for crime movies, but still), nor giving away too much about his pre-prison life, the film is able to keep what comes from not drifting entirely into the surreal (which it threatens, and at some points manages, to do). But the film's observation of Silviu is not always impeccable. Florin Serban and Catalin Mitulescu sometimes make him do weird things for the plot to advance. The film also presents him as having limited skill in dealing with those of the opposite sex. I understand that it's tough for someone who was shut off from the outside world before he was an adolescent to carry on with a woman. But the film may push a little too far, presenting him as essentially insane when he desperately tries to court Ana (Ada Condeescu), one of the people who interviews the soon-to-leave prisoners. How his relationship with her plays out I will leave for you to see. I will only comment to say that it's pretty harrowing.
Another interesting uncertainty is how Silviu is perceived by the other inmates. They at first seem to be happy with him, but there also appears to be conflict regarding what he reveals to the superiors about illicit activity and also his incessant demanding to use one guy's phone. Silviu is seen to only have one true friend, a quiet one who listens to him and who at one point springs himself from the prison. But what Silviu does at the end inspires some degree of awe from everyone. I guess that's what happens when something out of the ordinary occurs and when one man steps out from the rest. (On a side note, these characters are apparently played by people who go through the same experiences that they do.)
The cinematography by Marius Panduru must be mentioned here. Dabbling a bit in crime-cinema technique (i.e. follow shots, utilization of the photogenic decaying buildings) but also doing some extremely impressive compositions and some eye-capturing one-takes, Panduru boosts the film during the down-time. Also significant is the work by Pistereanu, making his debut. Out of the gate, the script doesn't do him a lot of favors, but in the aforementioned confrontation scene as well as the climax he excels.
The film has a tight resolution may be off-putting to people. It was and still is for me. An argument can be made that it highlights the bizarre psychology and limited ambitions of Silviu. "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" is provocative enough for it to be tempting for me to make that rationalization and excuse it. It deserves a small recommendation, but as a whole, I find it too flawed for my taste. B-