The Romania presented in many recent films from the Eastern European country has been remarkably consistent in its bleakness: a grimly realistic landscape rife with bureaucratic and interpersonal apathy. So it is with Cristian Mungiu’s latest film, Graduation. But it’s what individual directors do within this milieu that distinguishes one from the other. Compared to Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristi Puiu, both of whom, in their own ways, bring a sly sense of dark humor to their work, Mungiu is the dead-serious moralist of the Romanian New Wave, with 4 Month, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills both depicting how personal and moral boundaries are tested within an environment of overwhelming indifference, opportunism, and plain evil.
Graduation offers another case study of a well-meaning individual who finds himself bending his moral compass in order to accomplish his goals. For Dr. Romeo Aldea’s (Adrian Titieni), the endgame is to guarantee a better future for his daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus)—i.e. one outside of the Romanian village in which he, Eliza, and his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), live. His well-laid plans, however, are punctured when, the day before a crucial final exam that would dictate whether she will maintain a scholarship before entering the University of Cambridge, Eliza is accosted and nearly raped by a stranger—an incident that leaves her with a cast on her right arm and a decreased lack of confidence in her ability to perform well on the test.
So desperate is Romeo to see his ambition for his daughter fulfilled, though, that he takes up the suggestion of a police inspector friend, Ivanov (Vlad Ivanov), to pull some strings with a town official, Vice Mayor Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), in order to ensure that Eliza will pass the exam for sure. Naturally, things don’t work out as cleanly as Romeo hopes, and Graduation’s last act is full of close calls and unnerving interrogations that threaten to expose his and others’ wrongdoing. On top of all this, Romeo also tries to solve two mysteries simultaneously—not only who tried to rape Eliza, but who threw the rocks through his home window and car windshield.
Throughout the film, Mungiu maintains a close eye on Romeo, who’s not quite the honest, upstanding family man his community believes him to be. As is revealed through various conversations Romeo has with his wife, friends, and colleagues, he lives in a state of disillusionment, having once flickered with idealism about fighting the political and cultural ills of Romanian society only to find himself beaten down by them. He’s thus channeling all his failed ambitions through Eliza—a burden that she eventually chafes at once he tries to rope her into his scheming. His behavior in his personal life also suggests an overprotective streak, evident especially in the suspicious way he treats Eliza’s boyfriend, Marius (Rares Andrici), a motorbike-riding underachiever who Romeo clearly thinks unworthy of her. And then there’s Romeo’s extramarital affair with Sandra (Malina Manovici), a teacher at Eliza’s school—a relationship that Magda has long known about, putting up with it until Romeo’s ends-justifying-means zeal pushes her to a breaking point.
On a broader level, Romeo reveals himself to the type of person who desires complete control over people and events at seemingly every juncture. This is what makes the style Mungiu employs throughout—his usual relentlessly prolonged long takes, over-the-shoulder tracking shots, and wide landscape shots—so appropriate, given the context of the film’s storyline, as the filmmaker’s very controlled aesthetic reflects Romeo’s misplaced faith in things going absolutely the way he planned. Seen in this light, perhaps even the excess of plot in the film’s third act, as all of the plot threads converge, is deliberate: As Romeo himself gradually realizes the futility of trying to control the circumstances around him, the film itself threatens to break down narratively as Mungiu cleaves to his coolly precise style.
Graduation may not exude the visceral power of 4 Month, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, but it may be more incisive and powerful as social commentary because of its more subtle observation of the world. Mungiu’s film is more than just a cry of despair toward the hopelessness of life in modern-day Romania, but a close examination of a character whose moral compromises ultimately make him not that much different from the societal forces he believes he’s fighting against. The filmmaker reserves his most potent gut-punch for an ending that leaves one with a sense of the sins of one generation being passed onto the next, however inadvertently.
As opposed to the Criterion Collection's presentation of the rich, mysterious, and filmic Beyond the Hills, the video component of Graduation comes straight from a digital source, for better and worse. There's absolutely no blemish to be seen throughout Mungiu's film, but the washed-out images just don't carry with them the same level of impact. But Graduation's dramatic crisis arguably benefits from being shown through a world all but drained of any meaningful color, and digital video has come far enough by this point so that, for instance, the black levels remain powerful even during low-lit shots. The 5.1 surround audio, as it was with Beyond the Hills, is surprisingly rich and, if not directional, at least filled with natural-sounding ambient noise. A musical it's not—though critic Bilge Ebiri, in his accompanying essay, might disagree—but the audio presentation holds its own.
Graduation didn’t garner acclaim at quite the same level of Mungiu’s previous two works, though it did share the best director award at Cannes with Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, yet another film that spoke deeply to the already converted auteur devotees and made little impression on anyone else. In any case, Criterion implicitly toes the party line by offering only a diminished copy of the extras featured on the distributor’s Beyond the Hills release. It subtracts the making-of documentary, halves the amount of deleted scenes, and includes a somewhat less energetic Cannes press conference that feels mostly compulsory. The one match is the newly filmed interview with Mungiu, in which he comes off nearly as engaging and insightful as he did discussing the previous film. And, again, Ebiri makes a solid case in the booklet’s liner notes for Graduation being anything but a step down for the director.
It may not have the raw sense of arrival of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but Graduation still retains that Palme d’Or-winning modern classic’s thrilling pulse of morality itself racing to beat the clock.