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GRADUATION (2016) review

April 27, 2017

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written by: Cristian Mungiu
produced by: Cristian Mungiu
directed by: Cristian Mungiu
rated: R (for some language)
runtime: 128 min.
U.S. release date: April 7, 2017 & April 21, 2017 (limited)

 

With his latest drama, “Graduation”, writer/director Cristian Mungiu continues his intent study of human behavior that put him on the map in 2007 with the challenging “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and his last film, 2012’s “Beyond the Hills”. The award-winning Romanian filmmaker is concerned with the motivations and repercussions involving corruption and the temptation that comes when just enough leverage is within reach. It’s yet another Romanian film where the phantom cloud of Ceausescu hangs low over  the post-communist atmosphere, leading well-intended characters to make desperate decisions that snowballs into an irreversible place of moral decay. Regardless of the place and the predicaments of “Graduation” there is a universal reliability that permeates throughout this complex and absorbing story.

In a concrete housing block apartment in Transylvania surrounded by continuous grey skies, resides Romeo (Adrian Titieni “Child’s Pose”), a preoccupied and restless doctor who is going through the motions as the husband of his depressed wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar “Octave”) and father of their eighteen-year-old daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus “The White Ribbon”). Years ago, Romeo and his wife fled the country to escape the communist regime, but we learn they returned in 1991, in hopes of improving their lives and their homeland. They are now a fractured unit playing family, with the daughter remaining close to the mother and Romeo banking on a Cambridge University scholarship for the intelligent Eliza. It should be easy – Eliza aces a final exam and off she goes to a promising future and a better life.

 

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But this is a Mingiu film, where such an ideal scenario cannot simply go as planned. On her way to school one day, Eliza is accosted by a would-be rapist, successfully fighting him off, but remaining emotionally scathed, with her right arm (and writing hand) in a cast. Eliza becomes certain she cannot complete her finals scheduled for the following day, despite knowing that her scholarship would be rescinded if she were to finish the with the school year with a grade lower than anticipated. Desperate to get his daughter out of an unchanging environment, Romeo decides to use his profession to his daughter’s advantage, tapping shoulders and back slapping those influential in providing Eliza with a smooth way out.

At the same time, Romeo’s hidden personal life starts to unravel and the once upstanding physician is now scrambling to keep all of his plates spinning.  At every turn, he is confronted with unethical options that could help Eliza’s situation. His police inspector friend (Vlad Ivanov, “Snowpiercer” and “Toni Erdmann”) suggests he moves the local Vice-Mayor’s (Petre Ciubotaru) name to the top of the live-transplant list at the hospital, in an effort to possibly persuade some charitable grading on the his daughter’s test. Meanwhile, the affair he thought was hidden from his wife is started to see the light of day. His mistress, Sandra (Mălina Manovici) is hoping Romeo can help her young son get into a particular public school (as he promised), despite its full capacity.  Romeo’s plans are further complicated by Eliza finding out about her father’s infidelity and her boyfriend, Marius (Rares Andrici), coming to her defense.

While his intentions are to help his daughter, the way in which Romeo goes about lining things up in her favor wind up corrupting his soul as he spirals downward into a moral  quagmire. Lies and deceit become a crippling disease to which Titieni’s Romeo succumbs. Mungiu has created a character that we can understand, especially if you’re a parent, yet are repulsed by nevertheless and Titieni deftly handles a complex and multi-faceted role that must convince audiences that this guy isn’t straight-up awful. Sure, his actions are reprehensible, but again, we can understand him while not condoning him.

 

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In following this tale of compromise and evasion, we also see a storyline that has been visited before in various mediums and that is when an child learns some hard truths about his/her parents. Dragu is fascinating to watch as Eliza, in a role that could’ve been one-note, but becomes almost as complex as Titian’s role. As “Graduation” progresses, it becomes clear that the relationship between father and daughter will never be the same, especially in the film’s final moments.

The world which Mungiu creates here is as punishingly real as his other films, but “Graduation” definitely emphasizes a fractured family study that unfortunately is indicative of this Romanian New Wave, which is often a critique of modern-day Romania. Perhaps Mungiu emphasizes the dire tone and colorless environment here by excluding any musical score in the entire film, there is only ‘diegetic music’, much like his previous films. This causes the viewer to lean in closer and focus on the characters – who they are, what they do, what they are saying and how they are treating each other.

While it relies heavily on its specific milieu, “Graduation” ultimately becomes most memorable for something almost every parent can attest to – the idea of being willing to do just about anything to benefit the life of your child. You can live vicariously through your child, become obsessed with providing for them, but at what cost?

Mungiu is an observant and intense artist, one whose film’s are immersed in reality that doesn’t concern itself with uplifting the audience, but rather exposing truthful behavior, regardless of how inspiring or moral the behavior is. He simply presents issues, people and environments as he sees them. It can be daunting for the viewer and I wonder if such is the case for Mungiu as well.

Last year, “Graduation” debuted at Cannes to much acclaim, with Mungiu sharing the Best Director Award with Olivier Assayas for “Personal Shopper“. The film went on to several international film festivals, including Telluride, Toronto and here at the Chicago International Film Festival, where it won a couple of awards.  It has recently received a limited theatrical release in the States.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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