Film

Cristian Mungiu's Graduation Paints a Portrait of Crumbling Romania

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From the opening shot of its protagonist's drab neighborhood, its shabby architecture left over from the Cold War era, Cristian Mungiu's satirical drama Graduation is a portrait of a European society coming off the rails, its moral compass left to rust. At its center is Romeo Aldea, a frustrated Romanian surgeon with an impatient mistress, a distant, depressed wife, and one overriding ambition: to see his daughter Eliza graduate with honors so that she can attend college in London and escape permanently from their dreary, bureaucracy-controlled Transylvanian town. When Eliza (already showing reluctance to follow her father's plans for her future) is physically attacked just before her final exams, Aldea's already tenuous faith in society begins to erode and he enters into a dark and widening path of moral compromise.

Aldea, played with solid, lumbering determination by Adrian Titieni, is a man clinging to his ideals, trying desperately to hang on to his personal sense of ethics while following the rules of an increasingly corrupt social game. Mungiu depicts contemporary Romania as a world of backroom deal-making: A good word to the man in charge of grading examination papers, and a passing grade can be exchanged for a higher slot on a transfer waiting list. As he steps into this network of co-dependency, Aldea is burdened by a sense of dullness, and a resentment that his hope for the future — and not just that of his daughter — has been hijacked by the most banal forms of petty crime.

He tells his daughter, "All that counts is getting to a normal world," but with every move he makes, his life becomes increasingly absurd. Aldea's daughter grows resentful, his wife and mistress both become hostile and his well-intentioned efforts seem to be leading him into a police investigation.

Maria-Victoria Dragus portrays the protagonist's daughter. - C​OURTESY OF IFC FILMS
  • C‚ÄčOURTESY OF IFC FILMS
  • Maria-Victoria Dragus portrays the protagonist's daughter.

Mungiu, who shared the best director prize last year at Cannes (tied with Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper), gives an almost physical presence to the sense of petty corruption permeating Aldea's world, and the bulky Titieni responds in kind, showing the weight of his struggle with the most trivial gestures: He even peels apples with grim determination, as if imagining that the fruit was the head of an enemy. Mungiu puts him in the center of nearly every shot, following him closely with the camera at shoulder-length to give the film a feeling of claustrophobia. The world seems to be enclosing him, even in open spaces.

Although the comparison isn't completely accurate, I was reminded in some ways of Michelangelo Antonioni's films from the early 1960s. Here's the difference: Antonioni was deeply concerned with a modernist world and characters who were mostly unprepared to deal with its oppressive effects. Mungiu's film offers a late variation on the alienation in Antonioni's films. The only modern world his characters have ever known has deteriorated and whatever optimism they may have felt for it has turned into cynicism and disgust.

Graduation is a political satire, even when it's unclear exactly where its politics lie. It's a suspense film of sorts, even though most of the film's mysteries (like the identity of the person throwing rocks through Aldea's windows) are left hanging. Most of all, it's a picture of a man in ethical quicksand, an unwitting pawn of a society he thought he understood.

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