Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation constructs the portrait of a doctor’s crumbling world just as his daughter is graduating from high school. The doctor is Romeo (Adrian Titieni, wonderfully restrained here), and he’s having an affair with Sandra (Malina Manovici) that his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar, who looks like a Romanian Jennifer Jason Leigh) is well aware about. He doesn’t mince words with his patients; one of them says, “You’re the kind of doctor who tells patients the truth.” However, Romeo’s central flaw seems to be his penchant for taking half-measures. After a rock shatters his window in the first scene of the film, he simply tapes cardboard over it instead of replacing the window entirely. His affair with Sandra has been going on for some time now, and she’s tired of all the sneaking around. “You don’t make plans and avoid matters,” she accuses him when he’s forced to spend the night in her apartment.
Romeo’s world tilts on its axis when his daughter Eliza (Maria Victoria-Dragus) gets assaulted outside her school. She’s traumatized by it, but she’s in the midst of taking her final exams and her grades matter for a scholarship she has been selected for to go to college in the UK. Romeo pushes her to take her finals no matter what, using a variety of cajoling, coddling, and emotional blackmailing techniques, but he also sets up a safety net for her by using his professional influence to make sure that her exams are graded well no matter how she does on them. Magda and Eliza disagree with Romeo’s methods to secure Eliza’s future, but Romeo’s argument is that “sometimes in life, it’s the result that counts.”
It doesn’t take long while watching Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (Bacalaureat in Romanian) to realize that it is a masterful film and an excellent exercise in film craft. An example of Mungiu’s mastery is evident in an early scene in the film, when Eliza is writing her police statement in the station after she has been assaulted by an unknown assailant. She is flanked on all sides by men: Romeo, the chief inspector, and two police officers, one of whom is questioning her off-screen. On a formal level, Mungiu shoots the scene in deep focus, allowing the actions of each character in the shot to clearly register to us. Blink, and it’s easy to miss the silent humor of the police officer in the background as he saunters into the frame to get a drink of water, but sticks around to listen to Eliza’s account of her assault. On a narrative level, we ping-pong between the different interactions that happen between the characters and the different tensions that emerge from them, for example when Romeo speaks for his daughter when she’s asked to recount the assault, after which he’s promptly silenced by the off-screen officer. On a visual level, we witness the isolation of the assault survivor in the societal institutions where she seeks justice as she is forced to narrate her traumatic experience to unsympathetic ears.
If it sounds overwhelming, that’s because it is. Graduation offers the average moviegoer an experience akin to a fast-food junkie eating at a three-star Michelin restaurant and coming away from it stuffed to the gills. The craft exhibited by the above example is present throughout the narrative, with Mungiu using a unique mise-en-scéne where his characters interact with the background in evocative ways, possible by the unobtrusive long takes that he employs in each scene. I only wish that Mungiu had shot it on celluloid – where every frame actually is a painting – but his use of digital suits the somber, washed-out, gray morality of the film. While Romeo’s actions are done mostly for Eliza and her future, Mungiu also targets the fear that Romeo holds over his legacy. If Eliza does not go to the UK and have a better life for herself, then what meaning does Romeo’s sacrifice, in which he remained in his country and tried to rebuild it after 1989, have? This universal parental sentiment is filtered through a particularly Eastern European lens, sometimes with a heavy-handed touch, but always with a sincerity that makes us empathize with Romeo as he slowly falls from grace.
In some ways, Graduation most resembles the Coen Brothers’ darkly comic period piece A Serious Man (2009). In both films, their middle-aged protagonists go through a concentrated period of personal and professional upheaval in their lives, and always have the best of intentions but the worst of outcomes. While there are several ways in which the two films differ, the most fundamental difference between them is in the way their protagonists react to the disasters that befall them: Gopnik reacts with a fatalistic incredulity that registers clearly on Stuhlbarg’s Harold Lloyd-like face. Romeo, on the other hand, is a stoic figure who weathers disaster with no apparent reaction. He soldiers on and accepts failure as part and parcel of his existence. After all, Gopnik is a product of the American Dream; to lose everything in the land of opportunity deserves an utterly incredulous reaction. Romeo, though, is a product of the failure of post-Soviet transition; for him, the world can change overnight, and the appropriate response is to shoulder the burden and deal with it.
Both films share ambiguous endings as well. While Graduation does not share A Serious Man’s gleefully bleak turn of throwing a tornado at its protagonist at the end of its narrative, it does have several loose threads that it leaves for us to consider. We do not know who assaulted Eliza, even though we have a clear witness in Matei (David Hodorg), Sandra’s son, whose appearance in his trademark mask in Eliza’s assault video is seen by Romeo but is not followed up on. We do not know whether or not Romeo, Sandra, and Matei will become a family to replace the one that Romeo has become estranged from. We do not know whether Romeo will get implicated in his manipulation of the system or not, even though he does make a last-ditch effort to avoid it. What Mungiu does leave us with, though, is some sort of narrative resolution for Romeo and Eliza’s relationship. She will live her life on her own terms and Romeo will just have to get used to that. At least, maybe, until she graduates from university.