Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” – An engrossing tale of societal decay

Poster for "Graduation"

It’s interesting what a difference marketing makes. The American poster for Romanian director Cristian Mungiu‘s Graduation features a desperate embrace between a father, Romeo (Adrian Titieni) and his teenage daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), with the tagline, “A father will do anything to save his daughter’s future”. The international poster for the film, meanwhile, features no trite taglines, and instead has an image of Romeo and Eliza sharing an perplexed and adversarial stare. Neither of these posters misrepresents the film, per se, but they certainly emphasize different aspects of it, and the battling nature of these two sides to their relationship is certainly the central conflict of the film.

The story begins with Eliza about to graduate from high school. She is an excellent student, about to receive an academic scholarship to Cambridge, and Romeo is desperate to see his daughter succeed and leave their small Transylvanian mountain town to seek a better education abroad. Eliza, meanwhile, is in a happy relationship with her local boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici), and is noticeably ambivalent about her father’s plans for her. Her fortunes change abruptly when she is brutally attacked outside her school, a sexual assault which ends with a sprained wrist that severely hampers her chances of doing well enough on her final exams to qualify for admission to Cambridge. This dilemma, in and of itself, absorbed me straight away and was certainly enough to carry the film. But Mungiu pulls off something far more subtle and complex as the film goes on – an exploration of a deeply corrupt town in which everyone considers themselves to be honest, but regards greasing the wheels and doing illegal favors for one another as just the way the world works.

Romeo seeks out the help of a sort of town boss, Alexandru Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), to help with his daughter’s exam grade. Bulai, who is a fascinating character with enough implied backstory to merit an entire film of his own, has done favors for Romeo in the past, and desperately needs Romeo’s assistance now. This is because Bulai is dying – he has cirrhosis of the liver, and will not survive without a transplant. Romeo, a surgeon at the town hospital, has contacts in the country’s Ministry of Health, and can potentially get Bulai’s name bumped up the list. This is not an ongoing question as the film goes on – Romeo does this without hesitation, because it doesn’t guarantee anything immediate (as he can’t know how quickly a liver will become available), and because this is the sort of corruption that feels entirely benign as long as you don’t think too hard about the people who are bumped further down the list as a result. And this is how it starts. Bulai is a pristine archetype of a corrupt political mover, but to hear him speak from his office (and later from his hospital bed), he’s just a good-natured fellow who loves doing favors for people, and he’d really appreciate it if you did a favor for him just this once. But it’s not quid pro quo. We never owe each other. It’s just what good friends do.

There are many marvelous details of this setup that help to establish how vast and commonplace the web of corruption is in this town. First, when Romeo expresses some worry about his daughter’s academic life, the very first person to suggest he go to Bulai to help him commit academic fraud is the chief of police (Vlad Ivanov). Once Bulai starts the process in motion, the ensuing conversation between Romeo and the president of the exam committee (Gelu Colceag) is quite fascinating. They’re having this discussion in a back room with the sounds of his wife’s birthday party in the background, and the man assures Romeo that he has earned his entire life honestly, and this is the first time he’s ever done such a thing. Romeo gives him similar assurances, then offers him an awkward bribe without hesitation. There are many scenes like this throughout the film, and almost without exception, they strike the perfect balance between ideological exposition and genuine character beats. These people are constructing an ever-expanding network of sordid dealings, and they are simply unable to see it that way. And the most frustrating example of this is Romeo, because he is not only initiating and exemplifying this corruption himself, but he is trying to bring his daughter into it as well.

Still from "Graduation"

Eliza’s cooperation is required in order to properly fudge her exam scores, because she must mark her exam paper using a prearranged code so that the head of exams can properly locate it (as it will not have her name on it). So Romeo needs to tell her what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and what she must do. And this scene – the first of two in which Romeo is trying desperately to corrupt his daughter, is as ethically fascinating as it is heartbreaking. Romeo believes in his daughter – believes that she can accomplish great things. And he believes that her best chance of doing so is getting out of their podunk town – a chance that has been derailed due to an event (her assault) for which she bears zero blame. He repeats the same sort of mixed-up moral interaction that he had with the exam president:

“Sometimes in life, it’s the result that counts. Don’t get me wrong. We raised you to always be honest. But this is the world we live in. And sometimes we need to fight using their weapons. So this is a precaution that gets you where you want to go. Where you deserve to go. From there, you can do what you think is best.”

 

Even as Romeo mentions “their weapons”, the film’s overwhelming ideological point is that there is no “they”. They aren’t the corrupt ones ruining life and making the world unfair for all of us regular people. They are us. And for anyone with the power to break the rules for their own benefit, they are making a conscious choice to bend the moral arc of the universe in the wrong direction. And in the moment, it all feels righteous. Coming back to the film’s American tagline, “A father will do anything to save his daughter’s future,” I’m struck by how much Romeo seems determined that his daughter will follow in his corrupt footsteps. He’s not safeguarding her future, per se – he’s teaching her the same set of privileged skills that led him to his own place in life. Society only functions if there’s a common rule set for everyone, or at least, if that’s everyone’s nominal goal. And Romeo is the epitome of replacing that standard with, “What would you do to give your children a leg up over everyone else?”. Graduation revels in this contradiction – and confronts the viewer with the assurance that if that answer is specific and situational rather than broad and ethical, then civilization is a fragile experiment that is all but destined to fail.

Romeo himself is destined to fail. Titieni crafts a remarkably sympathetic performance for what is ultimately an unlikable and tragic character, and as the film goes on, he carries this increasingly palpable tension. The question is not whether Romeo’s life will collapse, but how and when. His marriage with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) is noticeably on the rocks, and the early moments of Bugnar’s subtle performance are quite impressive by the film’s end. We learn almost immediately that Romeo is having a long-term affair with a younger woman, Sandra (Malina Manovici), who has a son who may or may not be following Romeo around and breaking his windows. I can’t say much more about this without spoiling the film, but suffice to say, Romeo’s complicated relationship between his old family and his woman on the side thoroughly muddies the dilemma with his desire to see his daughter leave the country to study. And what of Eliza? The American poster is honest in one respect – the focus of this story is squarely on Romeo’s desires and plans rather than on his daughter’s agency. Yet her agency is what drives the film’s tension and conclusion, because the decision of whether or not to cheat on her exams, and whether or not to leave her life behind to study abroad, falls squarely on her shoulders. Even outside the two fantastic scenes in which Romeo tries to corrupt his daughter, Margus’ performance makes it clear just how much she has learned from her father. Just like the international poster, she stares deeply into her dad’s eyes and says without flinching:
I learned it by watching you.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

D.J. Caruso’s “Disturbia” (2007) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Disturbia"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.


Consider yourselves spoiler-warned.

Disturbia is a film that I never thought I’d watch again, yet inexplicably own on DVD. As I recall, I was on a paid internship, had few other expenses or responsibilities, and routinely went to Target and looked for brand new DVDs for films that I hadn’t seen, to purchase at full price (about $22.99 at the time). Silly, silly thing to do – but that’s the sort of weirdo (living with my parents) I was in 2007. I’ll begin this recap by saying, Disturbia is a film which both reminded me intensely of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window (more on this below), and yet, managed to do a few innovative things with the formula, and genuinely impressed me at the time. Many aspects of the film have aged poorly, however, and the rest of this review will be a scene-by-scene litany of them.

Right off the bat, it is deeply unnerving to see Shia LaBeouf refer to an someone as “Pop”. He and his father (Matt Craven) share some banter while fly fishing, before the shot surges wide and we see their stand-ins hike out of a stunningly gorgeous valley. It’s lovely, and OH FUCK THEY CRASHED AND HIS DAD IS DEAD and my wife just turned and asked why I would ever watch this movie as Shia is selling the hell out of staring into his father’s dead eyes beneath the crushed hulk of a former Volvo. Seriously, whatever other snark I bring to bear on this film, the acting prowess of its leading man-boy (even as he’s delivering some truly atrocious dialogue) is genuinely beyond reproach. This is the guy who played Mutt Williams the very next year, and I honestly can’t get enough of him. Title card. It goes without saying that in the next scene, Shia will be wearing a hoodie and doing poorly in school. He gets into a serious altercation with his teacher, and ends up in front of a juvenile court judge, who sentences him to an electronic ankle bracelet for 3 months. Also, if I heard correctly, Shia’s on-screen name might actually be Kale? No, that can’t be right.

The top of the next scene is a commercial for Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter on the then-new Xbox 360 – an Ubisoft game whose single-player campaign, as I recall, begins with the main character in a helicopter receiving a briefing before – in a shocking and unprecedented twist – the helicopter is shot down, but the main character survives and is forced to shoot his way out of an unexpected firefight. The game doesn’t last long, as his mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss) has apparently cut his Xbox Live and iTunes subscriptions to finance his incarceration. I should mention, I’m actually rather impressed that the film included the backward real-world detail that a convict under house arrest gets billed (sometimes quite exorbitantly, and by a private company) for their incarceration, precisely when they’re least in a position to be able to earn income to pay for this. This is also true of people out on bail awaiting trial, and people out on parole, and it’s one of the more shameful aspects of our prison system. Ten years ago, I might still have casually made jokes about being sent to a Turkish prison, despite not really understanding the reference. In the same breath, I would also have made jokes about not dropping the soap in an American prison, because rape as a punishment for the largest per-capita incarcerated population in the world was something I still considered funny at the time. I also cringed a bit as the judge tells Shia that he’s cutting him a break (by not sending him to juvie until he’s 21) because his parent died, because this is a break that he’s categorically and statistically more likely to get as a white kid. We only hear about the most egregious cases like Brock Turner or Ethan Couch, but it happens every day in this country – children and adults of color getting harsher sentences for the same crimes compared to their white co-offenders. I don’t joke about American prisons anymore. They’re just not as hilarious as they used to be.

Before too long, Shia (whose character name we finally see in print, and it really is Kale) goes stir crazy and starts building a Twinkie fort. Shia, my dude – I won’t call you Kale, but what did I just say about that single-player campaign, and also do you own any books? Next, in another stunning twist for a mid-2000s teen adventure film, a pretty girl in daisy dukes (Sarah Roemer) moves in next door, and the long shot appears to be framed to ensure two distinct appearances of her posterior and thigh-gap. Her face does not appear in this scene. Shia’s mind is blown as a bag of flaming dog poop is dropped on his doorstep by some neighbor kids, and he seems legitimately confused by the concept. A brief chase ensues, and Shia breaches the monitoring perimeter. He will be in handcuffs at the end of this scene, and only then will the front end of the girl next door be shown. As her family looks on in shock and confusion, she throws Shia an intense stare. She’s SMIZING, my wife remarks. “Smiling with her eyes?” I ask. Yes. This is why we’re together. Indeed, The Girl is throwing the sort of simmering look at Shia that portends the pair’s eventual awkward cinematic lovemaking, but lacks the psychic foresight to watch a similar scene in Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac and instinctively steer clear. If you’re curious what the hell I’m referring to… “3+5 Scene”. YouTube it. Prepare to be intrigued and disturbed. Then go watch the whole thing if you can handle it, because it’s awesome.

Still of Sarah Roemer in "Disturbia"

Next up, Shia uses a series of pristine lawn implements and fishing line to mark the frontiers of his kingdom. Those tools are going to be rusty as fuck by the end of this movie, and as I recall from my first viewing, this will not be the last time Shia disrespects an expensive piece of metal. Shame. There also appears to be a hedge row three feet past this line, so I’m really not sure what purpose the Line serves. 22 minutes in, we have our first genuine Rear Window moment. After briefly watching the Girl undress, Shia realizes the power of peeping, and aggressively explains it to his buddy Ronnie (Aaron Yoo). “This is reality without the TV,” Shia actually says out loud with his mouth, and makes a few tawdry observations about the soap opera ensuing outside his door. Shia finally meets the Girl, whose name is Ashley, and she comes from The City, and I can already tell by the quality and detail of her dialogue that she will have a great deal to contribute to this narrative. He peeps on her some more later, this time with binoculars, and she seems to know it, since his window is wide open, his lamp is on, and she looks directly at him. “She can’t see you,” says Shia, “it’s too dark.” He’s wrong. There’s also an aggressively specific news report blaring in the background about a missing woman who may have been snatched by a man driving a classic car with dents on the front left fender, but that’s probably not important. He then sees his Murder-Neighbor (David Morse) pulling that exact car with that exact damage into his driveway after unloading a couple of garbage bags, each roughly the size of a human torso. Probably also not important.

The next morning, he peers through the fence and sees Murder-Neighbor (whose name is Robert Turner) murder a garden bunny, and I don’t want to dismiss this scene out of hand, as it’s emblematic of this film’s legitimately clever visual use of their suburban landscape. Rear Window took place facing what was essentially a two-dimensional apartment block – really just a vast cinema screen divided into different scenes playing out en masse, with Jimmy Stewart free to peer between them. In this film, Shia is in a house with a preternaturally awesome view of every house around it, and he not only has to run around his room and house and yard to get a proper view of everything that’s going on. The film is forced to create some elaborate visual setups in order to make all of this work, and I can scarcely imagine how difficult it was to find (or build) a housing complex that fulfilled all of these requirements. For all of the film’s superficial Hitchcockian touches, it still manages to innovate on its own terms. The bunny-murder scene is one such moment, and it turns out the three-foot gap between the monitoring boundary and the hedge row/fence forces Shia to lie on his belly and peer through a tiny gap in a fence in order to both gather information and keep his foot within his kingdom. We see his POV through the camera, and it’s quite a tense scene.

Shia and Ronnie peep on Ashley some more. Her sole outdoor activity seems to be sultry undressing – she even stands next to the pool in a bikini for an awkwardly long time and tests the water, as if expecting it to have changed substantially since she swam in it yesterday. Then she catches them, gets dressed in a matter of seconds, and comes over to confront them. And by confront, I mean hang out with. A brief, murderous exposition dump later, she has joined the Scooby Gang, which dumps out a bag of unspecified stakeout gear (“My uncle is a Type A Sociopath,” explains Ronnie), and they continue their surveillance of Murder-Neighbor. The camera pans past Ashley, who’s twirling a pen and also typing at a computer. She clicks multiple times while scrolling (which is just bad mime), then gets hungry from all the googling, and suggests they order pizza. Ronnie falls asleep holding hands with the pizza, leaving the lovebirds to Connect. Ashley changes Shia’s ringtone to something loud, obnoxious, and vaguely sexual (like all the 2007 kids were doing), and in a manner which I’m sure won’t be important later. She draws little hearts on his ankle bracelet, and he breathes heavily as she explains that her family moved to the city because of her father’s extramarital dalliances. “City life has its temptations,” Ashley explains, because she’s a badly written noir floozy and not a person. Poor thing. At some point during this scene, Shia says the title of the movie aloud.

Suddenly, some brakes squeal next door, and Murder-Neighbor brings home a badly written floozy of his own. Ashley successfully identifies the woman’s club bracelets (making her first definite contribution to the plot), and they watch him start an awkward sexual encounter and are actually pretty mean about it, before it gets aggressive and creepy later. The next morning, Shia is making a bagel and cream cheese with a red-handled butcher knife. He shuts the fridge, and Murder-Neighbor is standing right behind it. Turns out he ran into Julie at the grocery store, and she seems a bit taken with him, even as neither of them are reacting naturally to Shia’s brandishing of a butcher knife.

“It’s a knife, what’s the difference?”, asks Shia.
“About sixty bucks at Bed Bath,” schmoozes Murder-Neighbor.

Robert Morse in "Disturbia"

I’m going to talk briefly about David Morse in this film, because I actually quite like his acting, but I think the film couldn’t quite make up its mind as to Robert Turner’s motivation or strategy. The character is a serial killer – the Scooby Gang has him pegged correctly on that point. And Morse manages to play up that superficial, predatory charm quite well. But it’s genuinely unclear what the character is trying to accomplish from scene to scene. When Ashley is surveilling him later on at the hardware store, he hops into her car and gives her a talking-to about how much he likes his privacy, and how he’d really appreciate it if they left him alone. And for a man looking to maintain his cover and keep on murdering, the scene works great. But he also hits on her (a twenty-something playing a 17-year-old), which seems like an excellent way to keep them watching him. This will continue to be a problem throughout the rest of the film – the wild inconsistency in Murder-Neighbor’s strategy, skill, and personality. Morse does the best he can with this material (and he’s really quite an effective creep), but it’s a serious flaw in the script, even if I’m totally on his side about the butcher knife.

About an hour into the film is its very worst scene, in which it poorly attempts to continue the love story of Shia and Ashley. Ashley wants to throw a party, which Shia will be unable to attend because of his ankle bracelet. Quel dommage! Shia responds most immaturely, insulting her motives and taste in friends, then saying that she has disappointed him by being the type to conform so fast. This scene made me squirm internally, because I definitely said things that were this selfish, stupid, and condescending to girls I liked at that age. But that’s not what makes this the film’s worst scene – that’s Shia’s continuing surveillance of the party, and his possessive, jealous behavior which includes a merry prank of pointing his stereo speakers out the window and playing some obnoxious music to mess up the party next door. Ashley, rather than calling the police, storms over, and after a brief struggle over his iPod and stereo receiver, Shia tells her to wait a minute and then explains exactly why he Loves Her So Much. What ensues is a litany of thinly justified character observations he’s made by creeping on her with binoculars in her bedroom. You can read the whole damn nonsensical thing here, and it’s honestly one of the worst romantic speeches I’ve ever heard.

“That’s either the creepiest… or the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard,” says the girl. Literally one minute later, the party has ended, several hours have passed, and the newly merged entity known as Shiashley is furiously making out. And, I swear, Shia drops this sultry line between kisses: “Remember last night where we talked about my issues?” Meanwhile, next door, Robert drags a bloody tarp with “dead body” written on the side down some stairs, and this somehow causes the couple to peel apart and surveil him some more. And it is at roughly this point that I lost interest in painstakingly recapping the film, because honestly, it turns into a conventional slasher film from this point onward. With the exception of some poorly rendered Blair Witchery with Ronnie breaking into Murder-Neighbor’s house with a jury-rigged wireless camcorder (a pretty impressive feat of homebrew engineering in 2007), all that’s left of the film at this point is some shadows and musical jumps and hand-to-hand combat, followed by Shia stabbing the neighbor to death with a pair of garden shears to save his mother’s life. The whole sequence compounds the film’s inability to deal with Morse’s character in a consistent fashion. Where’s the urgency? All of the adults are on his side, and Shia’s about to have to go face a judge in the morning. There’s simply no reason for him to suddenly turn violent and attack all of his neighbors at once – particularly Julie, who is coming over to apologize on her son’s behalf. These violent thriller elements are seemingly less motivated by any imminent need for Murder-Neighbor to blow his cover and leave a pile of bodies in his wake, but rather by the film’s sudden need for an unearned climax and resolution. And it gets genuinely comical by the end! All of the basements of their houses are connected somehow (this is very briefly discussed earlier in the film), and the final showdown takes place in actual fucking catacombs. It’s bizarre. And feels tonally out of place with the rest of the film.

When I first watched this film, I was reviewing movies for the website of UW’s Rainy Dawg Radio, which I’m pleased to see still exists. I launched FilmWonk two years later, and I like to think that both my writing style and film standards have evolved since then. My tolerance for contrived romance (and disposable, useless female characters) has decreased, even as my tolerance for contrived action has remained about the same, and I’m still able to laugh about taboo subjects even if I’m a bit more aware of the implications. I’m sure that evolution will continue as I continue into middle age, but the most steady tendency that I’ve noticed in the intervening years is that I’m much less concerned with a film presenting a completely original plot – a rare thing – than I am with how well it puts its own spin on a familiar tale. Disturbia may bear a superficial resemblance to Rear Window, but that’s a premise that I can only imagine has become more relevant in an age of social media and mass surveillance (only the first of which we were aware of in 2007). If Disturbia had executed its character and thriller elements with a more consistent level of quality, I think it would be a much more memorable and relevant film today than it turned out to be. But if someone else wants to take another crack at it after ten more years, I’m in.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #102 – “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (dir. Niki Caro), “The Last Laugh” (dir. Ferne Pearlstein) (#SJFF2017)

Poster for "The Zookeeper's Wife"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out their final two selections from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, starting with Jessica Chastain in an untold Schindler’s List story, The Zookeeper’s Wife. And then we’re joined by a special guest, local author Erika Spoden, to discuss see who gets The Last Laugh when it comes to the Holocaust and other taboo humor subjects (including 9/11 and suicide bombings). Light, fluffy stuff, really. We promise (01:21:30).

May contain NSFW language.

Still of Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh"

FilmWonk rating (The Zookeeper’s Wife): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Last Laugh): 4/10 (Daniel/Glenn), 7/10 (Erika)

Show notes:

  • [01:47] Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • [26:32] Spoilers: The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • [46:55] Review: The Last Laugh
  • Music for this episode is the track “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis Presley (an English-language adaptation of O Sole Mio), which appears prominently (if a bit randomly) in The Last Laugh.
  • Special thanks to Erika for joining us this week – her memoir is titled Strawberries for 50 People, and it is available on Amazon Kindle.
  • Thanks as well to the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and Smarthouse Creative for helping us cover so much of the festival (for the first time) this year – we’ll definitely be back!
  • 20-year-old spoiler warning: We do discuss the ending of Roberto Benigni‘s Life is Beautiful in this episode.
  • We remarked upon the first film’s similarity to Schindler’s List – this led us to read up on those individuals who have been designated Righteous Among the Nations (an honorific by the State of Israel, similar to knighthood) for their work protecting Jews from persecution and death during the Holocaust. Over 26,000 individuals in 51 countries have been so designated, and their stories of heroism and sacrifice are well worth studying.
  • Daniel was correct – the term “genetics” dates back to the 19th century, and was coined in 1872 by an English biologist as a term for “laws of origination”. The sense of “study of heredity” comes about 20 years later, so the term had been around for over half a century by the time of this film’s events.
  • Correction: Oof. Glenn definitely referred to the late, great Joan Rivers as the very much alive Joan Collins at least once. Apologies to both ladies.
  • The two films that we discussed in the context of modern terrorism were Four Lions, from British comedian Chris Morris, and Paradise Now, from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad.
  • Joan Rivers told a Holocaust joke on the E! Channel, said a few more things on Letterman, and came back a year later to double down on Jimmy Fallon. These jokes are offensive, and we laughed at every single one of them. We repeatedly called this woman a national treasure and we stand by it.

Listen above, or download: The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Last Laugh (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)