The Corruption of Others: Cristian Mungiu's Cannes-lauded 'Graduation' explores a father's moral dilemma

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When people complain about the society they live in, they never seem to understand that part of the responsibility for how things are belongs to them. When people speak about corruption, they always refer to the others.”

Cristian Mungiu, the writer-director of the Palme d’Or-winning Nicolae Ceaușescu-era abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, doesn’t mince words. As evidenced in his films, from the sublime 4 Months to Occident and Beyond the Hills, the Romanian auteur is openly critical of his home country’s systems and institutions, be they cultural, intellectual, religious or governmental. In the exquisite Graduation, his latest that won him the Best Director accolade in Cannes last year, he goes after bureaucratic systems and the longstanding “quid-pro-quo” impacting Romania’s various establishments. With this story, he zeroes in on a culture where people in positions of power pull strings for one another to navigate a societal scheme that doesn’t treat anyone without connections fairly.

Mungiu believes this brand of social dysfunction is “common to a lot of places, not only to Romania.” The director joined me for an early morning breakfast in New York, during the week in October his Graduation screened at the 54th New York Film Festival. “We were having these conversations in Cannes press junkets. Most of the journalists were saying, ‘I come from Italy, so I understand the situation, or I come from South America, from Eastern Europe…’ It's a way of behaving, a way of surviving in [any] society not precisely settled.”

In Graduation, opening on April 7 from IFC’s Sundance Selects, we follow Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) and his teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) in contemporary Romania. Romeo is a respected doctor in the city of Cluj, lives in an average apartment and is stuck between his longtime marriage with the frail Magda (Lia Bugnar) and his extramarital affair with his young patient Sandra (Malina Manovici). Eliza, on the other hand, is a model high-school student with an upcoming graduation and a scholarship from an unnamed university in the U.K., offered on the condition that she earns top marks in her final exam. Her parents, especially her father, seem desperate for her to get out of Cluj and start a life filled with opportunities in England. However, an attempted sexual assault and resulting psychological trauma just before the exam understandably impede Eliza. She finds she can’t take the exam in that condition, and even if she did, her results would fall short of the required grades. But the determined Romeo can’t accept putting her daughter’s future in jeopardy. So he knocks on doors, picks up the phone and sweet-talks a number of key decision-makers who have the power to push Eliza through the system. The catch? Eliza will have to willingly partake in this corrupt scheme too.

The migration of Romanian youth is not a new topic for Mungiu, as he tackled a similar subject in his first feature film, Occident, but from a different angle that was informed by the experiences of his own generation. Born in 1968 in the midst of the Communist regime among Romania’s baby-boom generation, Mungiu lived his 20s in a vitally transitional era in the ’90s and organically equipped himself with multiple perspectives on his society, both pre- and post-Ceaușescu. He couldn’t go to film school during the Communist years. Knowing he had to pass a corrupt entrance examination the results of which routinely favored the children of people in power, he found it wasn’t even worth trying. He instead opted for a university in his hometown, studied literature and worked as a journalist with a student newspaper. And it was during that time the revolution came and changed the system.

“All of a sudden, there was this energy and for a while it was interesting to be in the press, and to live that moment from the perspective of somebody involved in all the changes,” he recalls. Their paper went from monthly to weekly to daily fast, just to meet the demands of the news cycle of the era. And then studying film in Bucharest became a real possibility for him. “I felt that I had all the freedom in the world to do whatever I wanted. All of a sudden, the law was fair. There was a clear competition [to go to film school] once a year.”

Many stories presented themselves to him in that era, including that of Occident, which was about the disappointment he felt towards his own generation, who left Romania instead of staying and fighting after the fall of Communism. “People lost hope, because we realized those who were part of the Communist party were not leaving and not willing to let go all the benefits,” explains Mungiu. “They were just turning themselves from Communists to capitalists,” he adds, underscoring the irony.

And now, 15 years after Occident, he finds himself back at the same topic from a renewed perspective. “Now it’s about our children,” he notes. “It is easier to make a decision about yourself. You are way more selfish [when you are making decisions for your children.] Because all of a sudden the question is, ‘What kind of society am I preparing them for?’”

Mungiu says the young generation leaving Romania and staying abroad is common and a growing statistic. “Most of them go with this idea that they will continue their lives there. [They make up] more than ten percent of the population throughout the last 25 years. These very fine, young, educated children leave, because the general feeling is you can't fight the system. You can't change it. This is a disappointment associated primarily with people of my age. Maybe things changed as much as they could in such a short historical period, but we don’t live on a historical scale. We live on a human scale. And on the human scale, things haven't changed enough. It’s [still] not a society primarily based on merit.”

Mungiu indicates that the political situation is still quite complex in Romania. On the positive side, he notes that the justice system has been working well for the last few years and high-ranking officials are no longer able to get away with corruption that easily. He believes this has prompted a sense of hope amongst Romanian citizens. But he laments the blood the country has lost through the smart, hard-working young people who leave Romania at Eliza’s age and never come back, even though they contribute to Romania politically from afar. “They do what they can, but they live [abroad], so they're careful with whatever they can form from this distance.” And then there are those people back home who are expected to sacrifice a lot to change things, and they inevitably get tired. “’You are the generation of sacrifice’ is what I heard from my parents, and from my grandparents about them, and this is what people say about our children. That's not OK. It just means the society is not really progressing with the right speed.”

Structurally and artistically, Graduation is emblematic Mungiu: Characters and situations are meticulously built with a watchful eye, surrounded by obstacles and cul-de-sacs people need to navigate. We meet the characters mid-action (a typical quality of Mungiu’s cinema that charges the first act of his films with intense mystery) and embark on Romeo’s journey at a specific moment of distress. Then it’s left to us to piece the situation together.

Mungiu says he always enters his stories knowing what has happened to his characters before the story begins. “I start with [real stories at first], either via articles in the press, or stories I personally know from talking to people. Then I combine them. In Graduation, there are at least three or four [stories] I read about. The moment I decided to combine them to have a general picture of a society and a portrait of somebody reaching this age and looking backwards [referring to Romeo], I thought it made sense. I had met with a girl in Bucharest who was the victim of this assault in which a guy dragged her in downtown Bucharest and nobody interfered. I thought, ‘Wow, what does this say about this society?’ You combine things and start shaping fictional characters with biographies. But not all of it can be in the film. You shouldn't have explanations in film.”

Through his signature single takes that imbue each scene with a heightened sense of tension and danger, Mungiu intentionally disconcerts his audience. He realizes his precise approach to capturing single takes asks a lot of his actors. Thus, he carefully seeks the right talent who can soar during this complex process. “We start reading pages of dialogue from the screenplay, where there's logic behind every line of dialogue. If they can take this logic on a big scale, then [I realize the actor and I] could be working together. Then I train them in a specific way. I act their part many times [during rehearsals], and by the end of it, they precisely know how I want to have [the scene]. Then I take all their observations and rewrite the dialogue, so it fits them as well. The shoot is very complicated. We shoot 10, 20…50 takes, for as long as we need. There's a lot of choreography. Every scene is just shot in one take, staged in a specific way. In the first 10 takes, we are just changing the rhythm and taking out the dead moments. Then, little by little, they start acting.”

Asked how he finds that fraught undercurrent, he explains that cinema is not only about what happens, but also about how the main character experiences what happens. And to him, that is the most challenging aspect to convey to the viewer. “I set up a level of tension, because in my work, either in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days or Graduation, I’m speaking about characters that feel followed, and guilty. There's this menacing thing all the time. But that's not easy to do, because nothing much happens in the end. It's just the feeling that they have inside of them.” In fact, he uses a litmus test when choosing stories: Can the story explore the inner state of a character’s mind? “I sometimes find stories which are very interesting, but if I can't imagine [a level of internal feeling], I look for something else. By the end of Graduation, you understand that this is also the portrait of someone feeling guilty, followed, and responsible for all the lies he told in his life.”

Still, Mungiu carefully shies away from painting simplified portraits of heroes and villains. As Romeo gets more desperate in his attempts to help Eliza get ahead, Mungiu makes it clear it’s not necessarily individuals that he is targeting. Instead, he dismantles the entire vicious circle of corruption, where people behave with their eyes on the short-term prize. Mungiu says he used to think this shortcut to getting things done through minor or major instances of corruption was connected to the Communist Romanian society of yesteryear. “We thought people were defending themselves. But now, 26 years [after the regime, we realize] this habit has stayed because there are still a lot of things that don't work well. You realize you are in a circle. You complain, but at the same time you don't do anything to change these things. The result is a continuous chain in which people find individual solutions for themselves and their children to survive, but not a collective solution for the society.”

Despite his international acclaim, Mungiu wishes his films had more a polemic impact in Romania. He also laments that his country’s citizens don’t enjoy much of a cinematic experience today. “We lost the habit of going to cinema in the last 25 years, because most of the theatres were lost. People today think of cinema mostly as entertainment.” And he finds another thing curious: Romania is proud of his international accolades won in Cannes and elsewhere, but officials fail to notice the political aspects of his work. “It was a very funny side effect. I started showing this film in May, right before the local elections. So I had to meet with candidates [running] for mayor. The film was about them as well. The audience would notice, but they just stood there, smiling. People don't want to transfer this from the screen to life.”

Mungiu notes that the audience for the Romanian New Wave, which also includes Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, is more international than Romanian. “People go to cinema, but they don't see Romanian films. Something I hate is when people meet me, they say, ‘Congratulations.’ I say, ‘Thank you, have you seen the film?’ ‘No.’ Okay then, don't congratulate me. I would have won [at Cannes] or not, that's not important. [See the film and] think about what it has to tell you.”