Extraordinary “Graduation” Explores the Wages of Ordinary Sin

Film poster: “Graduation”

Graduation (“Bacalaureat“) (Cristian Mungiu, 2016) 4 out of 4 stars.

The new film from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) begins with a bang. Well, a crash, anyway, as a rock shatters the glass of a living-room window, disrupting the peace of a solid middle-class family. Who has thrown it? What for? The man of the house (an apartment, really) runs out to find the source of the violence, and even goes so far as to run a good deal afield, almost as if he is looking for someone specific, whom he does not find, though he does glimpse a person on the literal other sides of the tracks, as a train passes. His on-foot pursuit is all the stranger because Romeo (as we soon learn he is named) is hardly young, and certainly not slim. A doctor firmly ensconced in middle age, he should be the picture of propriety. Until we see him in bed with a woman not his wife, shortly thereafter. Appearances can be deceiving: I had thought he was no ordinary Romeo; I was wrong.

This is post-Ceaușescu Romania, approximately in our current day, and as we will learn, corruption still runs rampant in a country forever marked by its long-ruling dictator. As he did in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu proves himself a master of the gradual reveal of layers of misdeeds, slowly building unease through a mise-en-scène of gathering dread. He reminds me of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke – whose 2006 Caché this movie resembles in procedural style (though with a different sin at its core) – only with less action, more psychology. In the case of Romeo, who starts out affably enough, Mungiu never fully explains all the reasons behind his comeuppance, though he leaves plenty of evidence out in the open. The specifics are less important than the general, since no one is truly innocent in a world of constant back-scratching.

Adrian Titieni (Romeo) faces off with Maria-Victoria Dragus (his daughter, Eliza) in “Graduation” (photo courtesy of Sundance Selects)

Except, perhaps, for Eliza, Romeo’s college-bound daughter, whose upcoming high-school graduation lends the film its title. She’s too young to have committed real crimes, yet finds herself at the center of a byzantine payback scheme. Or maybe not. What happens to her could be a random act. But Mungiu – again with clues strewn out in the open – raises the possibility of cause and effect that keeps us guessing, and engaged, throughout. More importantly, the dramatic question of whether innocent Eliza will escape Romania and move to London, as Romeo desires (his estranged wife is not so sure), becomes the driving narrative force of the story, while also being a bit beside the point, like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. It’s the toll of venality that motivates Mungiu, and in this simultaneously exhausting and engrossing film, he slices his pound of flesh and eats it, too. Ably assisted by a cast that includes Adrian Titieni (as Romeo), Maria-Victoria Dragus (as Eliza), Lia Bugnar (as Magda, Romeo’s wife) and Malina Manovici (as Sandra, his mistress) – who all look worn out before the drama even starts – Mungiu delivers yet another profound, cinematic exploration of ordinary iniquity, brilliantly executed and well deserving of the Best Director Award received at Cannes in 2016.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice."
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