A handshake, a favor and under-the-table deals all sound like a scene from a mafia film. It’s actually a part of modern-day Romania in Cristian Mungiu’s brilliant foreign film ‘Graduation.’ He won best director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for this stirring drama. It’s an intricately plotted story about a father that will go to extremes for the chance to secure his daughter’s future. It depicts the moral boundaries one will cross in a society full of corruption. The director paints a bleak world of hard-working people trying to do the right thing to further their stature in life. This is post-Communist Romania that is still marred by corruption after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in 1989. The powerful storytelling and acting make ‘Graduation’ a must-see arthouse film.
Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a heavyset middle-aged doctor is excited for his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) as he drives her to school. Her hard work will soon pay off when she takes her final exams the next day to clinch a scholarship to Cambridge University in England. To save time, Romeo drops her off a block away from the high school so he can meet up with his mistress Sandra (Malina Manovici). When Eliza takes a short cut through a construction site, she is attacked and nearly raped (none of the assault is shown on screen). Since the traumatic event is affecting her concentration, her father is worried that it could ruin the test scores needed for the scholarship. In order to guarantee her success, Romeo decides to go against his moral compass and use his influence to make sure Eliza will pass the exam.
Throughout the film, the camera follows Romeo through his busy life. He’s a well-respected doctor in the community. As we observe his interactions with his estranged wife Magda (Lia Bugnar), his ailing mother (Alexandra Davidesco) and his lover Sandra who happens to be one of Eliza’s teachers, Romeo is a patriarch used to running the lives of the women in his life. Although he is a successful doctor, he portrays a disillusioned man beaten down by a corrupt society. By securing a better life for Eliza in England, Romeo is redeeming the failed ambitions in his own life. The irony is that what he thinks is best for Eliza may not necessarily be what she wants out of life. She begins to rebel against her father by seeing her motorcycle-riding boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici) more often. Romeo clearly thinks the young man is unworthy of his daughter’s affections.
Mungiu employs a naturalistic style to his filmmaking that lends to a raw authenticity. When Romeo makes some unethical choices, you understand he’s doing it for the sake of his daughter. He wants her to have a shot at a better life outside of Romania. Every parent wants the best for their offspring. It’s a fascinating character study. By compromising his integrity, he is no better than the corrupt society that surrounds him. Like every child, Eliza wants to please her parents but at the same time embrace her independence. Besides dealing with his daughter, he must face his crumbling marriage and a mistress that is possibly pregnant. When bricks crash through windows for no reason, you experience the lawlessness Romeo faces on a daily basis. The cinematography by Tudor Vladimir Panduru is streaked with gray and brown as the camera tracks the protagonist through the drab landscapes.
If the story comes across as mundane, it is not. At times, the film is highly suspenseful. It’s a morality tale about a decent man fighting against being swallowed up by the corrupt tentacles of everyday life. ‘Graduation’ is a fascinating and intricate look at modern Romania. Seek out this foreign film at your local arthouse theater.