Graduation is the latest film from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, and marks his most accessible outing since the extraordinary 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
Set in the Romanian city of Cluj, we learn pretty quickly how things are run around here. It’s all about who you know, no matter what the situation. Favours are done, for everyone from doctors, lawyers, school principals, ambulance drivers and funeral directors. A merit system means nothing, it’s about pulling the right strings.
Romeo and Magda (Adrian Titieni and Lia Bugnar) have always done everything to give their daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) a better life than what they’ve had. Living modestly in a housing commission complex, the couple have always ensured her education be their top financial priority. Eliza has studied diligently, but while her grades are excellent, an assault days before her exams has put her future in doubt.
After pleading for leniency from the exam administrators, who actually threaten to bar her for having a cast on her arm which she could potentially hide cheat sheets in, Romeo resorts to less ethical methods. He arranges a way in which Eliza can mark her paper so that she will be given a grade by the assessor high enough to get her into a coveted UK university.
Eliza however sees her father in a different light once he tells her how she can rig the system. She begins to lose respect for him, which is only compounded by the fact that she’s also aware he’s cheating on Magda. Now, in another sense, he’s coaching Eliza to cheat too.
For her part, Magda spends most of her time sitting around the flat in a trance. She knows she has lost her husband. She comes to life only when something concerns Eliza, and is vigorously opposed to the plan that Eliza do something dishonest to succeed. That’s not the way she’s been brought up.
There are varying levels of corruption and deceit going on in the story, and we are constantly being challenged with the question, when is it OK to break the rules? Is it acceptable when so many other people are doing it?
Mungiu is such an effective filmmaker when it comes to creating intimate and intense moments. He loves having all the speaking characters in a scene close together in the one shot while the camera stays still. If one character goes off to do something, they are still in shot in the background, still a part of the exchange.
He has a simple visual style which adds a sense of authenticity to his stories. There’s also a great humanity to his work. His characters feel vividly real and you can feel his attachment to them.
Music too is used effectively. Romeo is often seen in his car. driving Eliza around or waiting to pick her up. Here he always plays calming Baroque music, which marks a contrast to the violent streets of their neighbourhood.
Mungiu has always been at the forefront of the Romanian New Wave. He set the bar high with his previous work, and Graduation sees him stay at the front of the pack.
Graduation is currently in limited release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee