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NPR Arts & Life

'Graduation': An Unflinching Look At Backroom Deals Made In Broad Daylight

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) and Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) in <em>Graduation</em>, writer-director Cristian Mungiu's tale of the tiny, everyday compromises that destroy the soul.
Romeo (Adrian Titieni) and Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) in <em>Graduation</em>, writer-director Cristian Mungiu's tale of the tiny, everyday compromises that destroy the soul.

Graduationopens with a brick thrown through an apartment window, and unfolds with that same kind of propulsive force. The house belongs to a middle-class Romanian family, one that is about to get caught up in a whole host of trouble, although not directly related to that brick. But the sudden burst of violence does serve as a crystal ball, an assurance that despite any efforts to keep the brutal, destructive outside world at bay, consequence will find its way inside the home — one way or another.

What does happen, in short order, is far worse. Eliza (the steely Maria-Victoria Dragus), a bright young high school student, is sexually assaulted outside of school before she's supposed to take a series of exams meant to determine her educational future. This devastates her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni), not only because someone has violated his daughter, but also because the doctor has been methodically grooming Eliza as a model student so that she can earn a crucial scholarship to attend a university in the U.K.

It's specifically the fear that Eliza might not leave the country that has him the most worked up. Romania's economy has been on an upswing in the 2010s, which the arthouse crowd will remember from all those Bucharest business meetings in last year's humanity-vs.-globalization satire Toni Erdmann. Yet Romeo and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar), who moved back to the country after the end of Communism and weathered the worst of the hardships that followed, have given up on the hope of their own lives improving, and they've become convinced that Eliza could never make a future for herself in Romania. So even though Romeo might view his own professional ethics as beyond reproach, he's soon pulling strings in the shadows of the local bureaucracy to score preferential treatment for his daughter, using his medical influence to curry favor with officials. He also ropes in Eliza's teacher, with whom he's having an affair—a detail that casts aspersions on his own insistence that he is a good person. One bad turn deserves another, and another, and... well, you know what they say about the road to Hell.

Cristian Mungiu, the film's writer and director, rocketed to the center of the so-called Romanian New Wave a decade ago with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, his masterful, Cannes-winning thriller about two women trying to secure an abortion under Communism. That success has made him, in some ways, the movie world's post-Soviet poster child. But if you were looking to stereotype Romanian cinema as an academic, emotionless exercise in depression, the way many of us tend to paint Eastern European art, Mungiu's not really your guy. He cares far too much about his characters to brutalize them without good reason, and that's what makes his films so gripping: he simply shows flawed people making a series of compromises to escape their situations, and he does so with a level of intimacy that makes us truly feel present, maybe even invasive, during these profound personal crises.

This intimacy is a literal one, in that the camera is often squeezed into tight corners while people bustle around it. But it also means taking in the film's drama without musical cues, close-ups, or any other signals we might be watching something out of the ordinary. In Graduation, we see Romeo progress through increasing levels of criminality, as he works to secure a liver transplant for a top government official who winds up being involved in some scandals of his own. But the truly chilling part is how matter-of-fact all this malfeasance is. Backroom deals and threats alike take place in casual conversations in offices and at parties, often in the middle of the day with people bustling all around them. (Mungiu is a big lover of no-frills staging and ambient sound; we hear everything in his environments, from phones ringing to dogs barking in the distance, and feel the distilled chaos of modern life.)

The script operates on many layers of rich irony, even beyond its obvious questions about individual culpability in a rigged system. Romeo may insist to a quietly seething Magda and his mother (Alexandra Davidescu) that their own generations have poisoned the well of opportunity. But by demonstrating his willingness to play the game when it serves his own interests, he is exploiting the same flaws he wants Eliza to flee from, thereby ensuring they will manifest for at least another generation. Graduationis also a reckoning for a voguish character type, prominent in Liam Neeson movies and elsewhere: the grizzled father who will do whatever it takes to protect his innocent daughter, even if he must destroy the rest of the world to do it. Is such a man really as noble as our culture pretends? And is his daughter really so naive as he thinks—or might she have her own ideas about her future, and about what moral universe she is comfortable living in?

It's a fine drama effectively told, with occasional flights of unexplained weirdness (a small child gazes silently wearing an animal mask straight out of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). But Graduation doesn't quite reach 4 Months...levels of intensity. In the prior film, the script was more suspenseful, the characters' dilemma was more heartbreaking, and the timespan was shorter: one day versus the several this narrative takes. Yet Graduation proceeds with a certain doom that's almost admirable, mocking the ideas of justice and opportunity in a world where people can watch an assault in broad daylight and do nothing. "Let's leave the children out of this," Romeo pleads to an authority toward the end of the film. It feels like a final exam, and he's about to flunk.

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