‘Graduation’ isn’t a horror film or a thriller. It’s a particularly quiet drama. However, in its own small and satisfying way, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s film is the most unsettling and tense experience you’ll have in a theater this week.
The protagonist (hero certainly isn’t the right word) of this tiny morality play is a man named Romeo (Adrian Titieni). He’s a complex man, but above all else a father. A well-regarded doctor in his small town, he’s determined to make sure that his daughter does well in her exams so that she can earn a scholarship to study in England and hopefully have a chance of finding a better life in a better world. When his daughter is brutally attacked on the night before her tests, he’s forced to fight to help get her the grades she needs. At first, that mean fighting to get her into the exams with a cast on her arm. (The officials are against it since that’s been used for cheating.) Then, when her grades aren’t high enough since she can’t focus after her trauma, Romeo pulls some strings and finds a way to get her grade changed, provided that he can get a local bigwig moved up to the top of the list for a liver transplant. Believe it or not, things get worse.
Romeo’s descent happens slowly. He doesn’t want to cross lines into corruption. He’s acting in good faith and with a noble purpose. He’s just also aware that the very society he hopes to pull his daughter away from is corrupt enough that the right people can provide anything when the right palms are greased. Director Mungiu goes out of his way not to judge his character too harshly. He’s not a villain. His compromises come slowly, piece by piece. Mungiu traps viewers in impossible circumstances, making us question how far we’ll go and then pushing further and forcing us to see the consequences. It unfolds in the smallest of ways until viewers aren’t aware how deep they’ve gone and how bad things are until it’s too late. At first, the film even feels a little boring, and many will feel that’s true all the way through. But for those who invest, the pain and tension will hit all at once and become almost unbearable.
Titieni plays Romeo as a man who always thinks he’s doing well. He’s flawed, but he tries. As he slowly compromises, he becomes strained. The barren streets that first seem like little more than a drab backdrop gradually feel foreboding. It slowly becomes obvious how common Romeo’s deceits are and how he has benefited from a corrupt system that helps precious few. Mungiu is never so vulgar as to lay these themes out openly through dialogue. It just adds up and becomes overwhelming. His locked frames and slow naturalistic pacing become increasingly moody. The story transforms from naturalism into something equally symbolic. The film is a specific attack on Romanian systems of power, but the themes hold wider appeal. The world isn’t always so different; some places are just more blatant about their corruption than others.
Of course, the movie might be filled with insights for some viewers and feel like a dull minimalist drama that adds up to little for others. Such is Mungiu’s style. (He also made the similarly searing abortion drama ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.) He’s a filmmaker who rarely imposes judgment or meaning onto his characters, scenarios, or formal filmmaking. Active viewership is necessary and the rewards are plentiful for those who take the time to look. It’s still not exactly the most exciting movie around even if you do commit, but it will stick in the mind and tug at your conscience far longer than more superficially exciting films that spend a lot of money and blow up a lot of buildings to ultimately signify nothing.