Graduation: Where Are You, Romeo?

<i>Graduation</i>: Where Are You, Romeo?

About halfway through Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (2016), Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) finds himself in a patch of woods in the middle of the night, crying. It’s a surprisingly vulnerable moment for a protagonist who is usually all business. We’re not even sure why he has wound up in this spot at this moment. Earlier in the film, he accidentally struck a dog on the road while driving his daughter to school; perhaps, seized by a sudden pang of guilt, he’s decided now to try to find the creature, which disappeared into the trees after being hit. (It’s hard to tell what Romeo is looking at, if anything, as he cries, given Mungiu’s fondness for keeping key characters and objects off camera.)

Graduation is an efficient, fairly brisk work, built mostly around two-person dialogue exchanges; strange reveries where characters mysteriously cry to themselves in the dark do not, at first glance, seem to be part of its aesthetic or narrative repertoire. But in these quiet moments—instances that stand in contrast to the central discourse of the film—Graduation takes on another dimension, and the director’s formal choices reveal their power. 

In its broad strokes, Graduation paints a portrait of a casually corrupt society that viewers familiar with the New Romanian Cinema will recognize all too well. The story follows Romeo, a well-respected middle-class doctor, as he attempts to save the scholarship to a British university his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguş), has been offered, in the wake of a horrific incident: the girl was sexually assaulted and injured on her way to school. Both the injury and the trauma interfere with Eliza’s ability to take her final exams. Nevertheless, she must go through with the tests if she is to get her opportunity to go abroad to study—which Romeo sees as the girl’s one chance to flee the graft and chaos of Romania. After his daughter does (relatively) poorly on one exam, the father resorts to underhanded methods in an effort to ensure that she get a perfect score on her next test, and pulls in his connections.

Romeo, we’re told, is an honest doctor, a kind of lone holdout in his integrity who doesn’t want his child to face the same struggles at home that he did. Late in the film, he laments that he returned (from where, we’re not told) after the fall of communism with dreams of making his country more just. “You know, in 1991, your mom and I decided to move back here,” he tells Eliza. “It was a bad decision. We thought things would change. We thought we’d move mountains. We didn’t move anything . . . At least we tried.” Later, he complains to his chronically ill wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), that her own desire for fairness kept her stuck in a dead-end library job. The drama in Graduation comes from Romeo’s wrestling with the fact that he has to circumvent the rules in order to secure a better life for his daughter—and that he must try to convince her to cooperate in his scheme, thus tarnishing what he sees as the girl’s own moral purity. 

Graduation represents a welcome development in Mungiu’s career arc.
He first burst onto the international scene with his Palme d’Or–winning second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), a gritty, frenetic drama about two young women in search of an illegal abortion in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania—a compelling mixture of kitchen-sink realism and ticking-clock genre elements. His next feature, Beyond the Hills (2012), was decidedly different, following the brutal and surreal experiences of two young women at a remote, windswept monastery. The film was based on a real-life event that made international headlines in 2005, but it also found Mungiu leaning into allegory and even the fantastical; the immediacy of his camera work and his fine eye for convincing detail were tempered by a story with fablelike overtones, along with elements of horror and melodrama. One film had a historical setting; the other seemed to exist, at least on its surface, apart from time.

“Mungiu does not judge his characters. This type of behavior, he suggests, is often the cost of existence in a land where institutions are ineffective.”

By contrast, Graduation represents a renewed engagement with the textures and challenges of everyday life in today’s Romania, along with a somewhat more personal perspective: the director has said that some of the film was inspired by his own experiences while driving his kids to school. He has also cited a variety of news events as informing the particulars of his story, including the rape of a young woman in broad daylight, within sight of bystanders who were unwilling to help. In interviews, Mungiu has also recalled his own decision to stay behind in Romania after the fall of communism, using language similar to Romeo’s in the movie: “I made the decision at age twenty-one to stay in Romania and try to change things at home,” he told Matt Fagerholm. Mungiu is a part of the world he’s presenting, in other words, and in interrogating this society’s attitudes, he’s at least partly confronting his own.

Perhaps that’s why, beyond depicting a culture going to rot, Graduation seems more concerned with offering a look at a man whose bubble of entitlement and self-importance is gradually punctured. Mungiu lets us know early on that, despite Romeo’s vision of himself as an upright individual, he is actually fully integrated into a place where duplicity and moral compromise are just part of the rhythm of life. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see Romeo pay a visit to his young mistress, Sandra (Mălina Manovici), after dropping his daughter off at school. As he exits his car outside Sandra’s apartment building, Romeo carries two shopping bags full of groceries for her; a few minutes later, after leaving the bed, the young woman looks through the bags, a subtle hint that their relationship has a transactional component. Indeed, Sandra rarely cracks a smile in Romeo’s presence. This may well be due to her frustration that he still hasn’t made any kind of commitment to her, but even so, she does not seem like a woman in love.

There’s also the fact that Sandra is Eliza’s English tutor, and that she initially met Romeo after he treated her in the wake of a car crash. If there are any lines of propriety or ethical behavior here, Romeo has already crossed a few of them. It’s telling that all three of the women in Romeo’s life are injured or ill in some way, and his response to each is different. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in Magda’s ongoing illness, and he doesn’t spend time with her even when they’re home together; they barely look at each other throughout the film. He does seem genuinely attentive to Sandra’s recovering wounds, however, noting with care early on that they’re improving. As for Eliza’s assault, despite some initial parental concern, his focus is directed primarily at its impact on her grades. At times, it’s hard not to wonder whether this man sees his daughter’s attempted rape as a logistical challenge more than anything else.

Mungiu does not judge his characters, however. This type of behavior, he suggests, is often the cost of existence in a land where institutions are ineffective: Eliza’s attacker may well have been a convict who escaped from prison the day before; school administrators won’t let her postpone her test, and they’re even reluctant—absurdly so—to allow her to take her exam with a cast on her arm. (As they note, one student was caught with the answers written on a Band-Aid the year before. The cheating begets more rules, which in turn beget more cheating; it’s a vicious circle.) In order to even plead his case with the school administrator, Romeo needs to convince the guard at the gates to let him in, and it’s his own mistress, Sandra, who intervenes to help. Our hero, the upstanding physician who scoffs at the corruption around him and wants his daughter to leave it all behind, is a paid-in-full member of a society where his status and connections buy him access and privileges few can afford. 

But Mungiu works these insinuations subtly, quietly. Sandra’s help at the school gates is offered with the briefest of gestures. Similarly, it’d be easy to miss the shopping bags of food at her house if you weren’t watching carefully. The plan to get Eliza the right grade on her next test is initiated by an old friend of Romeo’s who happens to be the chief of police (Vlad Ivanov). The key figure in their mini-conspiracy is Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), the local vice-mayor, an ill man in desperate need of a new liver; he’ll speak to the school administrator, and Romeo will in turn help move him to the top of the transplant waiting list. When reminding Romeo of who Bulai is, the police chief briefly lets on: “You remember Bulai? He got us out of military service at eighteen?” The compromises and cut corners go way back. But even so, the top cop isn’t necessarily doing all this because of some innate sleaziness or greed; Bulai happens to be the godfather of one of his own employees, a police sketch artist. Looked at from that perspective, this is all a string of personal favors being used to circumvent officialdom—a necessary by-product of a world where nothing works properly.

For all the realism of Mungiu’s approach—his flair for naturalistic dialogue, his handheld, observational camera—there’s something tantalizingly subjective about this film. We see things mostly from Romeo’s limited point of view, with the occasional quiet little tear in the fabric of his self-image. Thus, we’re not always getting the full picture, and a surreal, poetic sense of ambiguity hangs over the proceedings. In the very first scene, a rock is thrown through Romeo’s window at home. Later, someone tampers with the windshield wipers of his car. Halfway through the picture, that same windshield is shattered by another rock. The culprit is never identified—indeed, one could see these misfortunes as part of a general cosmic comeuppance that also includes Eliza’s assault. But Mungiu does hint that it might be Matei, Sandra’s young son, who is often seen with an unsettling animal mask over his face and who, we learn later, is fond of throwing rocks at the playground.

Mungiu has often spoken of his insistence that there be no music in his films, in order to avoid indicating to the audience what they should feel. But this isn’t entirely true: there is, in fact, quite a bit of music in Graduation, most of it coming from the stereo in Romeo’s car, where he likes to listen to elegant classical pieces as he drives through the decrepit streets of Cluj. This cocoon of peace and order inside our hero’s vehicle offers a guide to Romeo’s mind-set—his desire to barricade and preserve himself and his family against the moral decay outside. (Never mind the fact that, when he drives Eliza, she has her headphones on, clearly listening to something entirely different.)

The scenes in Romeo’s car—as it glides through the streets, the strains of Purcell and Vivaldi undulating—stand in sharp visual and aural contrast to the handheld economy of much of the rest of the film, which focuses tightly on dialogue exchanges and features lots of realistic ambient noise from the surroundings. Indeed, this formal tension speaks to the central spiritual trajectory of Graduation. The doctor’s automotive shell comes to represent his sense of entitled apartness—his presumed purity. But the fortress is constantly under siege, whether it’s by the dog he hits on the way to Eliza’s school or the rock that’s tossed through his windshield. In the movie’s first half, we usually look out at the world from inside Romeo’s car, as he drives or interacts with others. In the second half, it’s usually Romeo who’s standing outside the vehicle—whether he’s talking to a school administrator to warn him that the cops are on to their grade-fixing scheme, or to Eliza on her boyfriend’s motorbike. By the end, Romeo is reduced to riding the bus, along with everybody else. His baroque, insular bubble is no more. 

Romeo’s bus ride leads to another moment of stark vulnerability, one that echoes that earlier scene of Romeo bursting into tears. This time, he spies on the street a man whom he saw in a police lineup of Eliza’s possible assailants. Romeo gets off the bus and pursues the man—we don’t know what he’s planning to do—and finds himself on a dark backstreet, alone behind rows of houses and fences. He suddenly appears terrified—as if he has lost his way and doesn’t know where he is. This supposedly upstanding citizen, who so prided himself on his superiority and isolation from the rest of this debased society, finally seems to be thoroughly exposed and vulnerable. And for once, the good doctor does not appear to have any idea what to do next.

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