Graduation **** / *****
Directed by: Cristian Mungiu
Written by: Cristian Mungiu.
Starring: Adrian Titieni (Romeo), Maria-Victoria Dragus (Eliza), Lia Bugnar (Magda), Malina Manovici (Sandra), Vlad Ivanov (Chief Inspector), Gelu Colceag (Exam Commitee President), Rares Andrici (Marius), Petre Ciubotaru (Vice-Mayor Bulai), Alexandra Davidescu (Romeo's mother), Emanuel Parvu (Prosecutor Ivascu), Lucian Ifrim (Albu Marian), Gheorghe Ifrim (Agent Sandu), Adrian Vãncicã (Gelu), Orsolya Moldován (Csilla), Tudor Smoleanu (Doctor Pandele), Liliana Mocanu (Mrs. Bulai), David Hodorog (Matei).
Like his two previous films – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation tells a small story set in native Romania, that acts as a stand-in for the larger problems in that society. Both of those previous films have moments that are truly shocking, but Graduation is different in that it plays everything in a lower key. I’ve heard the film described as something Michael Haneke would make if he liked people – and that’s not a bad descriptor of the film. Because while the bourgeois protagonist of the film is certainly punished for his sins – and the larger sins of society – in Graduation, you still do feel sympathy for the guy. This is a warmer version of something like Haneke’s Cache.
In the film, Adrian Titieni stars as Romeo – a 50 year old doctor in Romania, who in many ways is seeing his personal life in a state of upheaval. His elderly mother is getting closer to death, he and his wife still live together but may as well not, and his younger mistress is getting tired of sneaking around. And yet, he could handle all of those things – not well, mind you, but handle them – as long as his 17 year old daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) does well on her final exams, thus preserving her scholarship to a University in England. Romeo has regretted for years his choice to stay in Romania following the fall of Communism – he sees the same basic, corrupt system now that there was then, and has little hope it will get better – so he has done everything possible to ensure his daughter has a chance to get out. But, on the eve of her first exam (there will be several), he drops her off across from her school, and while she’s waiting for her (slightly) older boyfriend to show up, she is attacked by someone who attempts (and fails) to rape her – but does leave her arm in a cast. While she may well be physically able to continue writing the exams – mentally, she may not be (understandably) – and thus Romeo starts down a path where one ethical dilemma follows another, with stakes rising each time he makes a decision.
Visually, Mungiu has continued in his now familiar style – the shots in the movie last a long time, often the entire scene, and are most often on a flat angle that takes in the entire room – and everyone in it. This forces you to take in the conversations as they happen, and really listen to them. It also never really judges the characters, as everyone is on the same footing. As Romeo continues his descent into a rather complex bureaucracy surrounding exams – involving police officers, the Vice-Mayor, and other various low level employees, you can see his life get further outside of his control, even as he tries to stop it. Yet, the film mainly remains calm – there are not many blowups scenes here, not much in the way of arguments or fighting – just calm as Romeo destroys himself.
Graduation is really about Romeo trying to control what he cannot control – and who under the guise of doing what’s best for his daughter, he has pretty much lost sight of her completely – he certainly doesn’t seem to realize that she is nowhere near as upset at the prospect of not going to England and he is – and while it would likely be a mistake to stay in Romania – especially for a boyfriend – at some point kids grow up and make their own decisions, and deal with their own consequences.
On one level, Graduation is very much about Romania – about a country who is still, nearly 30 years later, still really trying to move on from the fall of Communism, and all that entails. The systems have changed – but not that much after all – and the European Union allows for more freedom of travel and work – and gives people a chance to move. On another level, it is very much about parenting – about knowing when to let go, and allow her kids to make their own choices, their own mistakes. The film is a small scale tragedy because of what Romeo does – because he can never quite see what others really need from him, because he’s too busy knowing what they need.