The road to personal ruin is paved with good intentions. Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian filmmaker who’s earned a stern reputation with the Cannes earth-shaker 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, hasn’t delivered a film with quite the stomach churning heft since the 2007 drama, preferring instead to experiment with varying degrees of Sartrean existentialism and Romanian politics with his films since. Graduation is one such political film, but it also happens to be one of his most disturbing.
Deeply ingrained in the grueling day-to-day realism of Romanian life, Mungiu takes his time building the colorless suburban milieu upon which to act out his family allegory of dissatisfaction, deceit, and social quagmire. Graduation is no doubt site-specific – it’s a film that would certainly be understood and connected with more by those living in the country than by those outside of it, as the very structure of the film is baked in a critique of current-day Romanian society. But despite the film’s specificity, Mungiu succeeds in his ability to extend his allegory far beyond its small town milieu.
The premise is simple: Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a dissatisfied, borderline depressed father and doctor who lives with his fractured family in an impressively soulless and relentlessly grey middle-class neighborhood, is hanging on by a thread. But on her way to school, his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is accosted by a would-be rapist, successfully fighting him off, but remaining scathed emotionally, with her right arm in a cast.
Severely shaken and with her writing hand harangued, Eliza becomes sure that she cannot complete her final exams that were set to commence the following day, despite the fact that her previously garnered scholarship to a UK University would be rescinded should she finish the year with grades lower than anticipated. Desperate to get his daughter out of the inertia of Romanian society, a place he once fled for the same reasons, Romeo begins to cash in on his professional prestige and connections to allow his daughter some academic wiggle room.
Despite being a man of relative honesty, it isn’t long before Romeo embroils himself in macho, back-slapping backroom deals, toying with organ donor lists to bump up a man who can help get Eliza some charitable grading on her exams. What follows is a slow degradation of both Romeo’s morals and quality of life, clashing with his daughter’s hubristic boyfriend and running afoul of the law, all while slowly losing his grip on his family.
Graduation drips of Romanian New Wave almost to a fault, following the format of the stylistic mold to a T. But where Graduation fails in its placid pacing and predictable tonal lilt, it succeeds in its staggeringly unsettling realism and critique not just of existing Romanian political structures but the ease with which moral corruption can creep into desperate lives. Mungiu, leaving behind the brutal edge that made his name nearly a decade ago, has nonetheless crafted a film nearly as terrifying in its clear-eyed look at how far we might go for the ones we love.
Graduation has been acquired by Sundance Selects, but does not currently have a U.S. release date.
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