Graduation | Cristian Mungiu | Romania | 2016 | 128 minutes
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James Kreul discusses the latest film from Cristian Mungiu, Graduation, which like the filmmaker’s previous work (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) provides a uniquely Romanian look at the overlap between the personal and political.
Several recent Romanian films over the past decade have examined how pre and post-communist era bureaucracies have transformed the lives of Romanians, including Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.
Mungiu returns to that theme again with Graduation (Bacalaureat), which earned him a share of the Best Director award at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival with Oliver Assayas (Personal Shopper). Mungiu examines a man whose lifelong attempt to resist that bureaucracy by sending his daughter to study abroad is undermined by a series of events that pulls him back into its widespread corruption.
Physician Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is running late one morning when someone throws a rock through his apartment window. He needs to get his daughter soon-to-graduate Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) to school, so he doesn’t have much time to discuss the rock with his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar). During the ride, Eliza understands that her father is running late, so she suggests that he drop her off walking distance from the school. Eliza has one more day before her final exams, and her results will determine whether she can accept a scholarship to study in England.
Romeo was not running late to get to the hospital, however. He needed to fit in a tryst with his mistress, Sandra (Maliana Manovici), a teacher at Eliza’s school. While at Sandra’s apartment Romeo receives a call that Eliza has been attacked, and that she was now at the hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital, Romeo discovers that Eliza was sexually assaulted and nearly raped, and suffered an injury to her arm while defending herself.
Determined that Eliza have the opportunity to leave the country for a better life, the next day Romeo argues with school administrators to give Eliza permission to take the exam with an arm cast, which the rules forbid. Taking a later version of the test would disqualify her for the scholarships. Romeo succeeds, but Eliza fails to perform well due to her post-traumatic stress. This sets into motion a series of decisions that Romeo does not want to make, as he pursues corrupt elements in the local government who might be able to help him alter her results to reflect her strong work throughout the year.
Narratively, Mungiu handles the overlapping personal and political dramas here with maximum efficiency, especially when things begin to unravel for Romeo as his plot to help his honest, hardworking daughter begins to backfire. Stylistically, short scenes are handled as sequence shots, generally with one fixed camera position, but they never feel like indulgent long takes. Despite the two-hour running time, the pace is quite brisk from scene to scene, and Munigu supplies enough visual variation in his setups to avoid repetition within locations. Each scene is masterfully staged with subtle use of camera and character movement.
As the plot unravels, you anticipate certain scenes that must logically take place, but those anticipated scenes often surprise you in terms of tone. As soon as you learn about the mistress Sandra, you anticipate the confrontation between Romeo and Magda. But instead of a broad confrontation, Mungiu and his actors play the confrontation scene quietly, as two people who have known each other for a long time and knew things were over even if they didn’t know the details. They both know the sacrifices that they made over the years to provide Eliza with this opportunity to have a very different life than they have had. That kind of frustration and quiet resolution with their fate recurs again and again with other characters in the political context, as they discover what they have to do to move forward within a corrupt system.
Much of the success of the depends on Titieni’s performance as Romeo. His physical characteristics convey the fatigue of a man who has sacrificed for years for his daughter, and once the plot develops his jerky movements convey the anxiety of a man caught in a trap that could end up punishing him far beyond his own misdeeds.
What about the rock that starts the whole chain of events? Later, a second rock that shatters a window in Romeo’s car. Could it just be Romeo’s not so great neighborhood? There’s a deliciously ambiguous possible answer to that, one that might not literally answer who threw the rock, but one that’s profoundly satisfying both conceptually and emotionally.
Despite that and other ambiguities at the end, Mungiu delivers an at times suspenseful, at times emotionally heartbreaking film with Graduation. It seems very simple from moment to moment as you watch it, but upon reflection you realize the complexity of its web of characters and motivations. Mungiu makes such complex storytelling look easy.
Check out the other Missed Madison Film Festival reviews for Thursday, January 26: