Film Review: Graduation

Cristian Mungiu reflects on guilt and social responsibility in this Miller-like portrait of a man haunted by his own mendacity.
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In contrast to his earlier films, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Beyond the Hills (2012), both of which revolve around issues of life and death, writer-director Cristian Mungiu explores a relatively mundane matter in Graduation. On the surface, the movie chronicles a father’s desire to see his daughter succeed, no matter the sacrifice, but on a deeper level, the filmmaker’s third feature is a meditation on the soul-deadening costs of social and political corruption. Mungiu once again demonstrates his cinematic chops—the Romanian auteur was named best director at the last Cannes festival, a bookend for his Palme d’Or—but Graduation is less complex, or to put it another way, more didactic, than his earlier works, and as a consequence less compelling.

The narrative, loosely observing the classical unities, unfolds over a few days with a small cast of characters in a dog-eared Transylvania town. The coyly named Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a doctor whose short breath and large stomach suggest malpractice. His wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), appears to be clinically depressed, and his mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici), a former patient, has grown impatient with their ambiguous arrangement. Romeo has little time for either of these women; his entire focus is on his daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), who must achieve a high pass in her final exams to secure a scholarship to a British university and, by extension, a ticket to a better life.

As fate wills it, Eliza is attacked on her way to school, an attempted rape that leaves her emotionally vulnerable. Perhaps worse, at least for her father, she is unable to write because of a badly sprained wrist, and there is no time to reschedule the tests. It becomes apparent to Romeo that, although he considers himself distinct from his influence-peddling peers—a police inspector (Vlad Ivanov), a deputy mayor (Petre Ciubotaru) and a school superintendent (Gelu Colceag)—he has no choice but to ensure Eliza’s test scores with a well-placed bribe, or rather, by calling in favors that irredeemably bind him and his family to a system that operates on graft, cronyism and profiteering.

The appeal of Mungiu and his fellowRomanian New Wave directors—Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), Radu Muntean (Tuesday, After Christmas)—lies in their not-so-subtle satire of a society inured to injury and insult, to the insolence of bureaucrats and functionaries, to the alienation of feeling that comes with the loss of agency, purpose and opportunity. In their films’ fatalistic worlds, people make plans for dinner while others lie dying before them, ignoring the obvious except to locate blame elsewhere, retreating to whatever respite affords them escape.

Graduation reaffirms this now-familiar worldview, almost too literally, as though Mungiu, perhaps out of frustration, set out to make a statement rather than a drama. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills presented young women in moments of crisis, but the director encouraged viewers to consider for themselves the fitness of their moral decisions (or ponder their dearth of options). Here, Eliza, admittedly not the center of this film, remains profoundly ambivalent about her choices, before and after the attack. Romeo, as well as Magda and Sandra and, for that matter, all the characters, haven’t enough moral gravity to elicit audience empathy; they are broken in spirit or lack resolve or are simply unengaged.

Romeo, of course, is the tragic antihero of the story, and Mungiu adroitly stages his decline and fall, the best bit about Graduation. The director is famous for his deliberate approach to filmmaking—see Tomris Laffly’s excellent interview in the April issue of Film Journal International—but he indulges impressionistic flourishes. A rock is thrown through a window at the beginning of the film, sounding a note of anxiety that repeats throughout the movie and builds in intensity as Romeo grows more paranoid about his well-intentioned but ill-advised decision—a mood of dread that turns out to be entirely justified. The pleasure of watching Mungiu ply his trade is itself good reason to see Graduation.

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