Graduation (2016) Sundance Selects/Drama RT: 128 minutes Rated R (language, thematic elements) Director: Cristian Mungiu Screenplay: Cristian Mungiu Cinematography: Tudor Vladimir Panduru Release date: April 21, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA) Cast: Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Lia Bugnar, Malina Manovici, Rares Andrici, Vlad Ivanov, Gelu Colceag, Petre Ciubotaru, Alexandra Davidescu, David Hodorog, Orsolya Moldovan, Emanuel Parvu, Adrian Vancica, Liliana Mocanu. Spoken in Romanian w/English subtitles
Although it’s been nearly 30 years since the overthrow and execution of Ceausescu, the faint echoes of Communism are still felt throughout Romania. One form of oppression has given way to another. It’s a very corrupt society where nothing gets done without incentive, either money or favors. No filmmaker better captures modern Romania than Cristian Mungiu whose past works include the stark Communism era-set abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, a searing indictment of religious superstition, ignorance and indifference. He favors realism over melodrama, a characteristic that tends to heighten the drama of whatever moral dilemma his characters are facing. In his latest film Graduation, a father goes above and beyond in his efforts to make sure his daughter passes her final exams with high marks so she can get a scholarship to continue her education in the UK.
Romeo (Titieni, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) is a middle-aged doctor who wants the very best for his only child Eliza (Dragus, The White Ribbon). She’s about to graduate high school and has a chance to study in England if she aces her finals. Leaving Romania will allow her a better shot at a brighter future. His plans for Eliza are put in jeopardy after she’s assaulted outside her school by an unknown attacker. The attack leaves her with her hand in a cast and pretty badly shaken, so much that she might not do as well on her exams as she needs to. Determined that his daughter leave Romania, Romeo takes morally dubious steps to insure that she passes her exams. This means pulling a few strings with certain officials who are in a position to help her.
Romeo sees himself as a fundamentally decent man with stronger principles than most of the society that surrounds him. He also realizes that sometimes you have to break the rules if you want to get ahead. In other words, the ends justify the means even if it comes at great personal cost. Eliza isn’t the only person in his life causing him worry. He takes care of his aged mother (Davidescu) who’s not in the best of health. He’s alienated from his depressive wife Magda (Bugnar, Bucharest Non-Stop). He also has a mistress Sandra (Manovici) threatening to end their affair if he doesn’t leave his wife. But it’s his daughter that he’s most concerned about as she acts rather blasé about leaving Romania. It doesn’t seem important to her whether she goes or stays. To make matters worse, she’s seeing a guy, Marius (Andrici), Romeo doesn’t like. This overprotectiveness only results in driving a wedge between father and daughter.
To the average moviegoer, Graduation will be slow and boring. It has many long static takes of characters engaged in conversation. The eye-level widescreen compositions make the viewer focus on the characters and their interactions. There is a great deal of talking. But listen to what the characters are talking about. Listen to what’s being said. More importantly, pay attention to what goes unsaid. Notice how they talk around things. It’s an understood kind of language, one utilized in situations involving unethical actions. Other times, the camera follows characters as they traverse the physical and moral landscapes in the film. Eliza is mainly shot from behind so that we see what she’s seeing without seeing her reactions. Mungiu leaves it to the viewers to decide right or wrong for themselves. He makes excellent use of the natural locations (it was shot in the Transylvanian county of Cluj) as he follows Romeo through a bleak, drab landscape of old crumbling buildings and new ones going up. I’ve been to Romania a few times (Vaslui to be precise) and can personally attest that this is exactly what a provincial Romanian town looks like.
The acting in Graduation is tremendous. Titieni plays Romeo as a man forced to compromise his principles for the love of a daughter who doesn’t seem to fully grasp why he’s doing what he’s doing. Here’s a man who escaped the country with his wife during Communist rule and regrets his decision to return after the fall. He thought things would be better but they’re not. He made a bad decision and sees Eliza as his salvation. Dragus is terrific as Eliza, a girl torn between pleasing her father and declaring her independence. She’s not so sure she wants the same things her dad does. When they talk, she agrees with him but you get the idea she’s doing so only because it’s what he wants to hear. Later, anger and resentment set in. The characters in Graduation are emotionally complex, something the actors convey perfectly.
Likewise, the dilemma at the heart of Graduation is morally complex. This is a common thing in Romania (and everywhere else for that matter). It was Lenin who said you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. It’s as true in this day as it was in his. Mungiu has a perfect understanding of life in Romania and explains it via the universal language of film. Its narrative is as visual as it is verbal. It gives you a sense of the hopelessness and despair of everyday life in Romania where good things don’t come to those who wait. It’s a very compelling and gripping film, one where you find yourself emotionally involved with the central characters and their lives. It’s another outstanding film from an outstanding filmmaker.