Christian Mungiu’s Graduation is set in the present day, but with its story of grubby bureaucratic corruption, filled with old-style rotary phones and the sense of society teetering at the brink, the spectre of the Soviet era hangs heavily over this excellent Romanian tale of exhausted adult compromise. Relentlessly sad, but with enough shining moments to keep hope alive (and audiences interested), Graduation is a mature, nuanced take on what it means to be a parent and a member of a community when the chips are down that also provides plentiful insight for outsiders into how local Romanian society functions.
Romeo Aldea (Adrien Titieni) is a successful doctor in the town of Cluj, very highly ranked in his hospital and with friends in the police force and world of politics, connections that he’s forced to use after his 18 year old daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is attacked. Eliza is the victim of an attempted rape – physically, the assault ends up going no further than a sprained wrist, but the psychological damage is done, and she’s in no condition to sit her final school exams the next day. With her scholarship to an unnamed, but prestigious, UK university on the line, Romeo must grease the right palms to ensure that Eliza’s grades end up matching with the university’s requirements.
Meanwhile, both Romeo’s marriage to his depressed wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) and his affair with teacher Sandra (Malina Manovici) are crumbling around him, and an unidentified tormentor launches rocks through his windows as the police attempt to catch Eliza’s attacker. These subplots come together nicely, and centre on a mystery from Romeo’s past that Mungiu trusts his audience to solve with the clues he lays out, but always take a back seat in interest to the central story of off the books backscratching.
Romeo’s meetings with officials are itchily uncomfortable, as he drags himself and Eliza into a world of lies and as-yet-unnamed debts. Everyone Romeo deals with goes to great pains to assure him they need nothing in return, but the constantly ringing phones in every meeting scene remind us that all debts will come calling, and Romeo is tellingly the only character to ever pick up. Driven by the need to give his daughter a way out of Romania (though his view of Britain as a country without corruption and violence is tragically idealised), he also has to basically force her to cheat her way into the next stage of life. Their scenes together have a tragic and achingly real power as Romeo sacrifices Eliza’s respect for him in exchange for her promising future.
All this bleakness is punctuated by rays of real joy whenever a part of Romeo’s plan comes to fruition. Mungiu not only has us root for this father and daughter’s cause, but also asks the audience just how bad the cronyism he portrays is. It breaks the law and means you need connections to make it anywhere, but all involved are doing genuinely helpful favours for people with real problems, whether it’s a traumatised daughter or a liver transplant that needs bumping up the list.
These various meetings are presented unflashily, with long, unbroken takes and an often static camera, creating a stark, fly-on-the-wall veracity utterly in tune with the film’s themes and story, and also increasing the disturbing power of the occasional surreal imagery that Mungiu presents us with. Most striking are Romeo’s encounters with a mute child hidden behind a wolf mask. Maybe he’s disturbed, or maybe in a world of fraudulent and crumbling hierarchies, this feral youth is simply ahead of society’s curve.