For generations of Romanians, the decision to have children was more difficult than usual. The years before and after the 1991 revolution left difficult questions: what kind of country did Romanians want for their children? Could they see a future in it? Those questions and their aftermath are central to Graduation, the Romanian drama from Cristian Mungiu. Its hero has a narrow focus – he wants nothing more than his daughter to leave Romania for a prestigious UK university – except one obstacle after another gets in his way. This is primarily about pervasive corruption, and how it seeps into every transaction, no matter how perfunctory or personal. Mungiu observes this with his trademark low-key style, letting the muted tones serve as a haunting metaphor for what it’s like to live in a country that seems beyond hope.
Adrian Titieni plays Romeo, a father who works as a doctor in a provincial hospital, and he is every scene. Romeo’s primary focus is Eliza (Maria Dragus), who needs top marks on her exit exams in order to qualify for a scholarship abroad. Something terrible happens before her first major exam: an anonymous man sexually assaults her, leaving her with a sprained arm and emotional trauma. Romeo feels for Eliza, and yet his attention does not waiver from the exams. Now that Eliza is too distracted to focus, he has no choice but to grease the proverbial wheels of local government so corrupt officials can take care of her grades. A politician (Petre Ciubotaru) is in dire need of a liver transplant, so Romeo makes moves to move him up the donor list. Between all this, he juggles his Eliza’s needs, his failing marriage with Magda (Lia Bugnar), and his longtime affair with Sandra (Malina Manovici).
Mungiu films Romeo and the others with natural light, long takes, and no background music. This has been his preferred mode since 2007’s 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days; once again he finds material that enhances the style, and vice-versa. Graduation has an aura of drab realism – all the walls are crumbling, and each apartment/office is crammed with knickknacks from a bygone era – so even the modern touches like smartphones cannot bring the setting into the present. All this adds a sense of urgency to Romeo’s single-minded drive: his entire existence is a reminder of the better life he wants for Eliza. Magda and even Eliza question him, leading to long conversations about the wisdom of staying over leaving, and the script fuses practical concerns with larger, more philosophical discussions of how to lead the best life. There are no satisfying answers, and when Romeo starts to change his mind, it is only because he is exhausted.
Another, more intriguing layer is Romeo self-imposed burden as a provider. The west Romanian province of Graduation is very patriarchal: Romeo throws his weight around as if he earned it, while he expects Sandra to prepare his meals and a female doctor at the hospital arranges all his meetings. Like Mungiu’s superb horror-drama Beyond the Hills, Romeo never once pauses to consider what the women in his life may be thinking. Whenever he asks them a question, it’s always in relation to himself. There is a horrible, frightening scene where Eliza endures a police line-up. Vlad Ivanov plays the Chief Inspector, a man who is casually terrible at his job, and the larger implication is that justice is impossible. Someone will pay, the Chief Inspector reasons, and it does not matter who. Romeo and the other men bulldoze over Eliza’s feelings, to the point that their open corruption is grimly funny.
Graduation leaves many questions unanswered, including what will happen to Romeo’s relationships, and yet there is a droll elegance to its final scenes. A lesser film would heighten the drama of Romeo’s willingness to compromise himself, especially when two prosecutors get wind of his activities, but that kind of drummed-up suspense would get in the way of Mungiu’s larger purpose. Romeo never feels the walls closing in because he already perceives the hospital, his car, and his apartment as prisons already. Titieni carries Graduation, speaking like a man who internalizes frustration and understands that everyone else does, too. No actors oversell their performances, since that would betray Mungiu’s vision of modern Romania. Even with the pervasive gloom, Graduation finds a hopeful note. It ends like the punchline of a shaggy dog story: if corruption is now an inescapable facet of Eastern European life, a woman’s ability to exploit chauvinism has been around even longer.