GRADUATION, drama, not rated, In Romanian with subtitles, The Screen,
Is it ever right to do wrong? Does virtue necessarily get compromised when you cut corners to arrive at the truth, or to ensure a desired result?
These are the kinds of philosophical questions that propel Cristian Mungiu’s first new film in four years. The undisputed king of the Romanian New Wave, Mungiu shared the top directing award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for the movie, which he both wrote and directed.
Thematically, represents a return to the moral tensions Mungiu explored a decade ago in his breakout film, the riveting abortion saga 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and We’re introduced to a family undergoing an intense crisis: The daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), needs to pass a grueling high-school exam to receive a scholarship to study abroad at the revered University of Cambridge. But a day before the test begins, she’s raped outside her school, leaving her withdrawn and rattled, and in no shape to perform her best on the pivotal exam.
Perhaps she could wait until later, but that’s not acceptable to her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a skilled surgeon who has spent a lifetime dreaming about his girl getting out of the dumpy Transylvanian town where they live. So Romeo pushes Eliza to take the test, while he pulls the strings to ensure she passes. This is a town where everyone’s on the take. Police officers, teachers, government officials can all be bribed for the right price, if not always for the best of reasons.
Mungiu spins an elaborate web, each new layer of deception touching more lives, becoming ever more impossible to unravel and to fix. Before the drama concludes, we’ll not only meet Romeo’s disgruntled librarian wife, but also his mistress who teaches at Eliza’s school, his invalid mother, Eliza’s nervous boyfriend, and sundry patients, co-workers, and accomplices. All of them bemoan the widespread corruption, yet are seemingly as swept up in it as is Romeo. Yes, the women seem more indignant and inclined to challenge the graft. But, in all truth, much of what Romeo does is designed to benefit them, and they definitely do accept, and also seem to expect, the spoils.
This is a challenging film to watch — not only because Mungiu doesn’t sugarcoat his characters, but also because he tries to avoid the easier plot twists and turns. For instance, there is no musical score whatsoever — no melodies or dirges to signal who’s a hero, who’s a villain, and when to anticipate a major confrontation or reversal of fortunes.
Perhaps that will seem too ascetic and stripped down, and probably turn off the casual viewer. But for those weary of Hollywood’s bland phoniness, this is welcome medicine — tough, tight storytelling told with an unvarnished passion. — Jon Bowman