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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.”

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