Even when only tangentially addressed, a key theme in much of recent Romanian cinema is the idea that the generations growing up under Ceausescu can’t rid themselves of the survival instincts learned during decades of dictatorship. As seen in numerous films, greasing the system was the only way forward, so the doctor protagonist of Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” is one of a pantheon of characters who think of themselves as good people yet act in ways that perpetuate society’s dysfunction: when he works his connections to ensure his daughter scores high marks on her finals, he triggers just one more cascade of corruption. As expected from a master like Mungiu, everything is beautifully structured and utterly credible, yet “Graduation” feels like a retread, and despite much that’s praiseworthy, this lack of freshness will limit distribution to expected venues.
That still translates to moderate success, but the film is unlikely to receive the kind of critical and public kudos of “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” although the Mungiu fingerprint is here from the very first shot of a Ceaucescu-era concrete housing block – the kind of soulless, no-man’s-land construction the director has explored in most of his shorts and features apart from “Beyond the Hills.” Inside one of the nondescript apartments lives Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) with his sluggish wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) and their fresh-faced daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguş).
When Romeo drives Eliza to school, Mungiu uses a fixed camera stationed next to the teen in the backseat, looking out, to capture the full soullessness of the development, with its identical buildings, overgrown green patches, stray dogs and warped bench slats: it’s the physical manifestation of a stagnant society, where personal, interior spaces may be well-tended, but shared areas are left to crumble.
Shortly after Romeo drops Eliza off, she’s accosted by a would-be rapist but fights off her attacker. Severely shaken and with her right arm in a cast, she’s not too confident about her finals starting tomorrow, and Romeo is concerned that even an average mark will mean her qualified scholarship at a UK university will be rescinded. For him, his daughter’s entire future relies on getting out of Romania: he and Magda left under Communism but returned in 1991, and he’s regretted the decision ever since.
So despite not being the kind of doctor who accepts tips and bribes, Romeo takes the advice of chief inspector Ivanov (Vlad Ivanov) and offers to have Vice Mayor Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru) moved to the top of the liver transplant wait-list in exchange for pulling strings to ensure helpful grading on Eliza’s finals. For Romeo, it’s too late to escape the system and all he dislikes about his homeland, but his daughter has a chance, and wouldn’t every parent do what’s necessary for their child’s advancement?
At least that’s how Romeo sees it – he missed the boat, but time is on Eliza’s side. In truth of course, Romeo perpetuates the dysfunction of the very society he disparages. Judging by where he lives, it may be true that he hasn’t accepted money under the table, and yet his tolerance of the system, and ultimate complicity in the corruption that permeates every level, makes him a guilty beneficiary, and not just on behalf of his daughter.
Eliza herself is a character on the cusp: she refuses to play along with her father’s string-pulling and isn’t so sure she wants to leave Romania after all, but she loves daddy, and the possibility that she may one day slip into the same complacent acceptance is left hanging in the air even though Mungiu suggests her generation has a better chance of breaking free than her predecessors. Both “Graduation” and the director’s superior, chilling “Beyond the Hills” present a social landscape so despoiled by dictatorship that the essence of what’s right and wrong has itself become compromised, and blame needs to be directed at individual actions rather than an easily criticized, amorphous cultural-political identity.
In Romeo’s case, it seems as if this imprecise society has gone on the attack: at the film’s start, a rock is tossed through his apartment window, and later on his car window gets smashed. Between these actions and Eliza’s sexual assault, there’s an atmosphere of justified paranoia with no catchable culprit, as if the threat of lawlessness gives license for any number of unofficial avenues to be pursued. Exposing this fall-back mode of manipulation and influence peddling has formed one of the more forceful elements of Romanian cinema, from the monstrous mother in “Child’s Pose” to the expediter of “One Floor Below” as well as several of Mungiu’s shorts, which makes the director’s new film feel a little too much like he’s going over familiar territory. The topic has been far from exhausted, but the vehicle needs to avoid a formulaic quality, which “Graduation” doesn’t escape.
Performances of course are unfailingly convincing, with Titieni’s everyman vibe working especially well to convey the sheer unremarkability of his actions. His name of course isn’t chosen randomly: the doctor may not look like a Romeo, but he’s having an affair with school teacher Sandra (Mălina Manovici). Magda’s is a less satisfying character, walking about in a perpetual state of slothfulness, as if crushed long ago by the weight of unfulfilled dreams.
Although “Graduation” marks the first collaboration between the director and d.p. Tudor Vladimir Panduru, the visuals are every bit what’s expected from a Mungiu production, and he remains the rare helmer who can make the back of someone’s head a legitimate focus of attention. Whether cleaving to the actors or coolly observing the world around it (in this case, the outskirts of Cluj-Napoca), the camera doubles as an audience stand-in, reinforcing the inescapable truthfulness of the director’s vision. As usual, music is heard only when a radio or CD is playing, and in this case Romeo favors Handel, with a triple repetition of Andreas Scholl’s performance of “Ombra mai fu,” a mildly ironic choice given that the aria celebrates a welcoming sense of place.