Starting around 2005, a burst of creative energy in filmmaking emerged from an unexpected corner of the world: Romania. The Romanian new wave has given us trenchant social dramas tempered by minimalist styles featuring long takes, no music or at least very little, and overall, a sense of stark realism. The understated approach of Romanian filmmakers manifests as dry, deadpan satire, as well as muted tragedies of the everyday. Foremost among the directors from Romania is Cristian Mungiu, whose two previous films dealt with the controversial subjects of abortion and religious fundamentalism respectively. His new film is entitled Graduation, and it’s his most accessible and at the same time most complex work to date.
At the center of Graduation is a respected surgeon in the town of Cluj, Dr. Romeo Aldea, played by Adrian Titieni. Although he has achieved a measure of success, he sees Romania as an essentially corrupt and second-class country that offers a bleak future for his beloved teenage daughter Eliza. She has been offered a scholarship to Cambridge in England, conditional upon her passing her final exams, and the doctor has placed the fondest aspirations of his heart on her. But the day before the test, she suffers an assault, an attempted rape, on the way to school. Although injured and traumatized, she is not allowed a postponement, and she ends up not getting a good enough grade on the test. Angry and frustrated, her father tries to find a way to get around the system, eventually by trading favors with a prominent official who can pull some strings to change the test score in exchange for being placed at the head of the line for a liver transplant.
Now, it’s not that Dr. Aldea is an essentially dishonest person–in fact, he’s always been proud of his ethical behavior. But his overwhelming desire to secure his daughter’s future causes him, very gradually, to sink deeper into a pattern of cheating in order to get what he wants. The situation is further complicated by another kind of cheating—emotionally distant from his wife, he’s in the middle of an affair with a younger woman, a teacher at his daughter’s school.
Mungiu carefully avoids melodrama or even the kind of urgency the average movie would try to convey in this story. Instead we are very gently guided into the doctor’s nuanced view of himself and the world. We may not agree with him, but what he does seems completely understandable, and many parents would likely do the same. And that’s the beauty of Graduation. It shows how dishonesty is rarely a matter of bad intent, but is instead subtly woven into the fabric of the social order. Certain types of incidents repeat themselves in the film, and it dawns on us eventually that the Doctor is already benefiting from a system that always cuts corners for people who have more money and influence.
As plain as the style of the film may seem, the director has a knack for investing the most mundane events with meaning. Mungiu’s camera follows the doctor as he wanders and roams, and we sense his mental isolation and increasing sense of moral dilemma. Graduation takes us to a lonely place in which a person, who is only trying to do good, ends up face to face with his shadow.