'Graduation' Is One of the Most Fascinating and Complex Films of Our Time

Another brilliant film from an acclaimed Romanian director, ‘Graduation’ depicts with intelligence and skill a complex situation that obliges compromise and betrayal.

A scene from 'Graduation.'
Lev Cinema

Graduation (Bacalaureat) Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu; with Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Lia Bugnar, Malina Manovici

In 2007, the cinema world was taken aback when a film by a Romanian director, Cristian Mungiu, “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days,” won the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival. That masterpiece, which richly deserved the prestigious prize, introduced to international cinema a true artist, hitherto largely unknown. Mungiu became the representative director of the Romanian film renaissance. Indeed, Romania, from which a large number of exceptionally fine pictures has emerged in recent years, is now home to one of the most interesting and consistently satisfying film industries in the world.

Mungiu himself has become one of the most highly regarded directors in the international arena. In 2012, he returned to competition at Cannes with “Beyond the Hills,” which garnered him the Best Screenplay award (the two female leads shared the award for Best Actress). This year he won the Best Director award for “Graduation” (sharing it with the French director Olivier Assayas), a film that confirms Mungiu’s status as one of the leading directors of our time.

A stone that is thrown through the window of the home of a physician named Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) within minutes of the picture’s opening can serve as an image for the entire work. The primary situation that impels the plot can be likened to a stone thrown into a pool, generating ever widening ripples. In addition to expanding the plot, as the film progresses, these ever-larger circles come to represent the historical, social and political contexts that Mungiu extracts from the private story. These make the movie more dense, resulting in one of the most complex screen works of recent times.

Aldea, a senior physician at a hospital in Cluj, a city in northwest Romania, lives in an ugly tenement that dates back to the Communist period. The other members of the household are his depressive wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), and their 18-year-old daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus). Eliza is the pride of the family, having won the right to a scholarship to study psychology at a university in England. She will clinch the scholarship by passing her final matriculation exams with honors, a task that should present no problem for her. But on the day before one of the exams, in broad daylight near her school, she is assaulted by a man. The rape attempt is unsuccessful, but the event leaves Eliza psychologically distraught and with her right hand injured. With her father’s encouragement – nothing is more important to him than for his daughter to be able to leave Romania – she forces herself to take the exam on the day after the attack. But due to her mental state, Eliza fails to obtain the grade she needs to earn the scholarship.

Her father sets out to get her grade changed, citing her condition. He is a senior figure in the community and well-connected, so he reaches the person in charge of the examinations committee, who is beholden to Aldea for a favor the physician did for him, and also to the local police chief (Vlad Ivanov, the appalling man who performed the abortion in “4 months”). The police officer refers him to a dubious politician who is in urgent need of a liver transplant. Aldea is an honest, decent physician who, unlike others in his profession, refuses to accept bribes from patients to expedite treatments. However, in his effort to assist his daughter, the apple of his eye, he finds himself increasingly caught up in a cycle of corruption that entails compromises and the betrayal of all his principles.

Moral ambiguity

The betrayal goes beyond the private level. Aldea and his wife represent a generation that returned to Romania following the collapse of the Communist Bloc, believing they would be able to foment change under the new conditions. However, the supposedly new reality proved disappointing, a source of despair. Thus, Aldea, while disgusted at his slide into the realm of compromise, corruption and self-betrayal, also accepts this development as an unavoidable element of the new reality in which he lives, and as proof of the country’s ongoing moral rot, even after the era of Communist Party suppression.

But what about the next generation? Aldea and his generation pin their hopes on the younger generation, personified here by his daughter. He is far more enthusiastic than Eliza about her prospects of going to England. There is nothing for her in Cluj, he believes, and his hope is that afterward she, like her parents, will return to Romania and, together with the rest of her generation, bring about the change that he and his generation aspired to. But will Eliza, if she actually wishes to foment change in her homeland, agree to cooperate with her father in his efforts to ensure that she obtains the scholarship he covets for her? Her ethical qualms are also influenced by her romantic ties with a young man named Marius. He does not seem perturbed by the bleak future that awaits him in Cluj, and the fact that Eliza’s father is pushing her to leave the country leaves him puzzled and hostile.

Much of the film’s power is due to the ambivalence with which Mungiu endows all the major characters, notably Aldea. His marriage to Magda is on the rocks: A subplot depicts his relationship with a lover, a single mother who is a teacher in his daughter’s school. Their ties, too, are vitiated by an element of blackmail, which is the driving force for Aldea’s relations with the senior figures who might be able to help his daughter.

The ambivalence shapes the moral ambiguity that infuses the film, exposing foundations of sin and guilt, even if not all of them are resolved by the plot. (For example, who throws the stone through Aldea’s window at the beginning of the film, and later smashes his car windshield? Is it part of the random violence that is rife in the area, or is it related to resentment by one of the characters in the picture, or external to it? The same holds for the attempted rape of Eliza, which the police – and her father – investigate.)

The film, then, paints a dark, gloomy portrait of the present-day social and political situation in Romania, overlaid by the portrait of two generations: of the parents and of their children (a theme that is given marvelous expression in the picture’s concluding shot). Mungiu’s cinematic artistry is apparent, once more, not only in the multilayered script but in his filmmaking, which makes use of long static shots that document with impressive precision the milieu of the story and the characters’ attitudes toward one another. As in Mungiu’s previous films, this approach connects to the realistic heritage of the cinema but vests it with the distinctive character of this director.

Seemingly, “Graduation” is a work about daily life in contemporary Romania. The events it depicts are far from “dramatic,” but with intelligence and skill Mungiu uncovers the complexity of the everyday. That complexity, in which compromise, betrayal, corruption and cruelty are integral elements, together with a father’s commitment and a daughter’s plight, transform the everyday into a searing drama and create the relentless tension that impels the film.