Every great cinema movement usually has one filmmaker in it who acts as a standard bearer and for the Romanian New Wave that figurehead is almost certainly Cristian Mungiu, who was the first Romanian filmmaker to win the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. That winning film was 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, an intense but realistic film about back alley abortions in Ceaușescu’s Romania, and it was one of the landmark arthouse movies of the last ten years. After that film’s success Mungiu used his newfound clout to make his next film Beyond the Hills on a slightly bigger scale. That film examined the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Romanian society and the way women are treated with in it as well as the divide between urban and rural society. His new film, Graduation, is a little more modest but has clear depths to it in its examination of contemporary Romanian society and family dynamics. When it debuted in Cannes it was greeted as another success for the director and won an award for Best Director, but it maybe didn’t quite make the splash that his earlier films made.
Graduation is set in contemporary Romania and follows a skilled surgeon named Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) whose daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguș) is about to graduate from high school. Eliza is a strong student who has already earned a scholarship to study at Cambridge but this scholarship is dependent on getting high marks on a series of heavily proctored SAT-like exams. Going into the movie Romeo isn’t too worried about her chances of passing these exams, but that changes when she’s assaulted on the street by a man who appears to have been an escaped convict. This throws her and Romeo worries that the trauma will put her at a big disadvantage during the exams and could throw her hopes of getting that scholarship out the window. As such he does what any good helicopter parent would do and uses a contact he has in the ministry of education in order to try to give her scores a boost in the off chance she underperforms. This is very much out of character for Romeo, who has long been disgusted by the kind of corruption that occurs in Romania, which is a big part of why he’s so excited for his daughter to study abroad. It also goes against much of what he’s taught his daughter about integrity and given that she would need to mark the exam in order for it to be pulled and given special treatment it puts her in an oddly compromised position and makes her reconsider her father.
Depending on your perspective Graduation could be viewed as a critique on a culture of corruption that exists in modern Romania, or it could be viewed as a look at the hypocrisy of one man and the consequences of his sanctimonious views, or it could be viewed as some combination of the two. The protagonist is notably not a patriot, or at the very least he’s a very frustrated one; it’s established early on that he and his wife once lived abroad and returned to Romania after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime hoping to make a difference. He was disappointed in what he came home to and now believes that the only hope for his daughter is for her to move abroad. However, it becomes clear that in many ways this is a classic “this isn’t my dream, it’s your dream” when looked at from his daughter’s perspective. From a certain perspective the father’s pessimism perhaps seems overblown, snobbish almost, and that may especially be true when looked at from the perspective of someone who has grown up in this environment.
At the same time, Romeo is the film’s protagonist and you do see his point of view in all of this. Everything had seemed to be plotted out perfectly for him and seemed to be going so well until his daughter was attacked on the worst possible week and suddenly started rebelling and having second thoughts about her future on the worst possible week. He’s certainly right to want her to keep her options open, and you can also see why he’d justify the lengths that he’d go to in order to ensure she had a leg up. After all, if everyone else in the country is getting theirs why shouldn’t he get his? However, it’s that one moment of failure that’s ultimately his downfall. I’m reminded a bit of Michael Stuhlbarg’s character from A Serious Man, whose life turns into a Jobian trial as he considers selling out his principals once.
Stylistically Graduation is less bold than 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills and perhaps more closely resembles the look of some of Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian contemporaries, especially Corneliu Porumboiu, but that choice does fit this particular movie well enough. The movie actually kind of reminds me of one of the movies that it was competing against at last year’s Cannes Film Festival: Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman. The two films actually do have the shared theme of men reacting in less than appropriate ways to women in their lives being attacked, but really what the two films have in common is that they’re in the slightly awkward position of being very good movies unto themselves while also kind of being the weakest efforts from their respective filmmakers. Of the three films Cristian Mungiu has made since his breakout this is clearly the third best to me but that maybe says more about those other films than it does about this one.