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

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