Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu captured the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2007 for his remarkable film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days while picking up the Best Screenplay prize a mere five years later at Cannes for his next film, Beyond the Hills. Mungiu was a prize winner again for this film, a tie for Best Director with Personal Shopper's Olivier Assayas, and Graduation was also nominated for a Cesar Award for Best Foreign film while also picking up other festival prizes along its festival journey. Picked up by Sundance Selects for an arthouse run through the U.S., Graduation arrives in Indianapolis on April 28th for a run at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema.
While I wouldn't quite rank Graduation alongside the stellar 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Graduation is a remarkable film in its own right with a powerful, socially relevant message and tremendous performances from each member of its top notch ensemble cast. Films set in Romania, in general, tend to be rather bleak affairs and yet remarkably consistent in their portrayal of a rather broken society not just influenced by but defined by bureacratic corruption, chaotic violence and any semblance of hope replaced by a quiet resignation.
Amongst the Romanian filmmakers, others like Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu come to mind, Mungiu is easily the most straightforward and relentless in his refusal to soften the blows of this kind of society on its people. While Puiu and Porumboiu weave dark humor into their social commentary, Mungiu's films without fail have been stunningly bleak affairs devoid of a break for audiences to catch a breath. Some will admire this approach. For others, it will make his films difficult to watch.
Count me among the former.
In this film, Mungiu presents us with a man, Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), whom at first glance appears to be a man whose morals have survived life in the gritty urban city where he's seemingly built a positive reputation as a physican and where he lives with his soon to graduate daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), and his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar).
As an American citizen who lives rather significantly below the status or income of even the most humble physician, I must confess that I was immediately struck by the comfortable yet rather humble life in which Romeo and his family live. It is a dynamic that came to my mind often as Mungiu painted, in strokes both broad and intimate, the hazards and pressures of living a life in a social order where one's sense of hope is seemingly always at least somewhat dependent upon moral compromise. It may be true to a certain degree here in the U.S., but Mungiu paints a portrait of such compromise being necessary for survival for Romeo and his family and it would seem all who surround him.
Romeo, who returned to Romania with his wife after his studies and full of faith that he could be part of bringing social change to his country, has higher hopes for Eliza, hopes that it's never completely sure that Eliza shares or even wants to share. She is, however, as the film kicks off on the verge of obtaining a scholarship allowing her to attend an English university. The scholarship is dependent upon her scores on final exams, scores that are put in jeopardy when the night before exams she is accosted and nearly sexually assaulted. Her confidence shaken, it appears certain that she will not be able to perform as needed on the exams. Romeo, determined to not have his dreams for his daughter tossed aside, takes the advice of a police inspector friend (Vlad Ivanov) and attempts to pull some strings with a familiar town official (Petre Ciubotaru).
Things don't quite go as planned, jeopardizing virtually every aspect of life for Romeo and his family, though the final scenes in this just over two hour film are fraught with near misses, suspense, doubts, and an attempt by Mungiu, that is mostly successful, to tie up all of the film's loose ends in a way that is coherent and makes sense.
While Graduation is, perhaps, slightly less satisfying cinematically than Mungiu's previous works, it may very well also be his most effective film to date at portraying a societal and individual breakdown. Over the course of the film, we learn more and more about Romeo and we begin to realize that he may very well have already become that which he has always despised the most. While there is a glimmer of hope, Mungiu somehow manages to bathe that hope in the waters of resignation and apathy and an ending that radiates emotional power like few films have this year.
Titieni, who captured a Best Actor prize for his work here at the Chicago International Film Festival, is simply tremendous as Dr. Romeo Aldea, offering up a subtle yet emotionally riveting performance. As the young woman who is seemingly uncertain of her desired path and whose life constantly borders the line between apathy and hope, Maria-Victoria Dragus gives a performance that exudes passion yet innocence and vulnerability. Lia Bugnar takes what could have easily been your stereotypical long-suffering spouse role and makes it complex and deeply felt, while even Rares Andrici's turn as Marius, Eliza's rather unmotivated boyfriend, has many more layers than one might expect from a film such as this one.
Graduation benefits greatly from D.P. Tudor Vladimir Panduru's ability to weave together Mungiu's prized widely lensed landscapes along with the increasingly chaotic framed shots that would seem to reflect the life in which Romeo decreasingly has any actual control.
Graduation is a remarkable film, perhaps a touch less remarkable than Mungiu's other works yet still stunning in presentation and impact. Mungiu wisely immerses us into this world and these characters' lives then drives home his message in ways both unforgettable and jarring and true and powerful.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic