Movies: Being put to the test

The Romanian film ‘Graduation’ gets top marks

December 8, 2016 18:00
3 minute read.

‘Graduation’. (photo credit: PR)

Hebrew title: Bagrut
Directed by Cristian Mungiu With Adrian Titieni, Lia Bugnar, Maria-Victoria Dragus
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
In Romanian.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.

They say that no good deed goes unpunished. And in Cristian Mungiu’s masterful film Graduation, no bad deed goes unpunished, either. In this dark story of a father who only wants the best for his daughter, this desire leads him down a rabbit hole of compromise and corruption. The story is set in Cluj, Romania, but it could take place here or just about anywhere.

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Mungiu won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with the 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, about a young woman helping her roommate get an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania.

With Graduation, he won again at Cannes, this time the Best Director Prize. Both these films deal with people who are trapped by a system that makes their lives impossible and explore the ways in which the people themselves are complicit in the system.

Cluj is a place where corruption is not just common but embedded in the fabric of everyday life, and crime and vandalism occur with such frequency that people seem to expect them. Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a middle-aged doctor, who returned to Romania from Western Europe after the fall of Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, hoping to make a change, only to find himself frustrated.

Romeo’s wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), clings to her idealism, but her disappointment has left her weak and ill. On the days when she can work, she shelves old yellowed paperbacks in a library, their decay a metaphor for the larger deterioration of Romania.

This husband and wife have almost no relationship left, and Magda knows that Romeo has a young mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici), and doesn’t seem to care about it.

The only thing that unites Romeo and Magda is their love for their daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), a high school student with the looks of a Renaissance angel. Eliza is a good student, and her parents have spent all their money to give her the best tutors and send her to the best schools.

Now that she has a scholarship to a university in England, her future is set, and Romeo in particular is relieved and happy that she will be going abroad.

But just before her final exams begin — and that scholarship is contingent on her passing with high grades — on her way to school, she is attacked and almost raped. Traumatized, her arm in a cast, Eliza can’t do her best on the exams. Magda takes it philosophically, but Romeo cannot let his dreams for his daughter slip away. To make sure the administrators give Eliza a break when they are grading the test, Romeo, who never cut corners before, finds himself in the middle of a web of corruption and in conflict with everyone in his life.

Magda thinks he should leave Eliza be, while Eliza doesn’t seem concerned about the gravity of the situation and is most interested in hanging out with her motorcycle instructor boyfriend (Rares Andrici). Sandra feels some compassion but is also impatient for Romeo to leave Magda and marry her. Sandra has her hands full with her odd, slightly feral son who, in several scenes, wears a haunting wolf mask.

But for Romeo, there is no turning back, and this complex story takes several surprising turns.

There are no heroes are villains here, only people who are flawed and desperate.

The acting, as in Mungiu’s previous films, is extraordinary.

The actors are all professionals, but the film has the feel of a documentary.

The general plot evokes the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, as it looks at the Job-like situation of a man who suddenly suffers all kinds of misfortunes and humiliations.

It also emphasizes the ways in which women do not control their own bodies in a male-dominated world. Just as in 4 Months, where a woman could not get an abortion without resorting to all sorts of stratagems, here Eliza has to discuss her assault in graphic terms with her father and the policemen and must face a lineup of hostile men.

Deceptively simple, Mungiu’s Graduation makes you think the way that a really great novel does.

His films can change the way you look at the world.

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