by Ken Bakely
Cristian Mungiu does not judge his characters in Graduation. Why should he? These are people doing what they feel is right, thrust into a situation far beyond their means, running toward a conclusion they cannot avoid. The facts of their lives are sad and unfortunate, but they are more than that. When we meet Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a middle-aged physician in a small Romanian town, he is about to drive his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Drăguș) to school. She’s eighteen, working on her exams, and hoping that good marks will get her into a university in Britain. He drops her off across the street, so he can rush off and see his mistress.
His decision is fateful. Eliza is assaulted, almost raped, by an unknown assailant during her walk over to the building. When Romeo finds out about this, his guilt cemented even further by what comes after. Eliza, shaken by the attack, underperforms on her tests. Unable to retake them, it jeopardizes her chances of receiving the scholarship to pay for her education. What starts is a harrowing undoing: Romeo begins to poke his way into the system, requesting small favors from officials. He uses his medical connections to move up a local politician’s spot on the liver transplant list, after being told that the exam proctors, subservient to him, would listen to any request, even one to alter an individual grade.
Does it work? In another movie, we would not talk about that here, since that would be a spoiler. In Graduation’s case, we don’t talk about it because it’s not the point. Mungiu shows us the tragedy of it all – the fact that Romeo returned to his home country after the fall of communism in 1991, hoping that Romania would become better, and personal corruption a thing of the past. You can see the pain in his eyes, a biting familiarity with every step he takes to secure his daughter’s future, at the cost of the integrity which he has come to value so much. At the same time, Titieni does not deal in operatics, but in absolutes – each of his actions, before, during, and after the incident, is matter-of-fact. In the first scene, his living room window is broken, and he has to sweep up the glass. It’s an action as any other, and so is the rest of the movie. That’s what’s so wrenching: there is no agony of discovery, but the acknowledgement that it feels so normal.
And then we arrive at Eliza, whose assault is also minimized by the world around her. The greyness of the apartment blocks all over down; the utilitarian, joyless colors of playgrounds and park benches; Graduation is in a world where normality becomes insanity. Shouldn’t more people care about Eliza’s well-being? Shouldn’t more people care about Romeo’s predicament? Of course they should, but Mungiu demonstrates the reality of an indifferent environment, that a burst of emotion comes off as a foreign concept. But he draws power from that idea, and so despite the dour nature of the scenario, the movie teems with life. Are there rays of hope somewhere beyond the clouds? Maybe there is, but we don’t want to look for it.
His filmmaking is thoughtful, slow, and rigorous. It is as much about reflection as it is examination. He lacks a clear central thesis beyond the ideas he abstractly develops, but his concepts are so crisp in their potential that we recognize his skill in how he draws them out. Mungiu attracted international attention for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a spellbinding movie which also followed a trek through a challenging, stone-walled system, set in the final days of Ceaușescu’s rule. Graduation zooms out in time, depicting a world as it stands today. The world has changed a lot in the intervening years, but the shortcomings of individual human nature have not. He leaves open the possibility of change, and the resilience therein, but reminds us all that it may not be an easy road.