In the opening shot of Cristian Mungiu’s groundbreaking 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), we see fish swimming in a bowl. Behind the bowl, a poster of New York stands as a paradise forever out of reach. That suggestion of a free world beyond the reach of everyday Romanians becomes far more overt in Mungiu’s latest film, Graduation. Romeo, a respected doctor and loving father, repeatedly tells his 17-year-old daughter Eliza that she must escape her homeland if she is ever to be free. Fortunately, Eliza is a strong student who has been granted a scholarship to study in England.
Early on in Graduation, those plans will be disrupted by a senseless act of violence, and Romeo will spend the remainder of the story trying to pull strings which he hopes will put his daughter back on the path to her escape. This set-up allows Mungiu to dive deep into paternal sacrifice and the moral dilemmas which surround all petty bureaucracies.
In several key areas, Graduation represents a departure for Mungiu. Romeo is the first male protagonist he has used. And whereas 4,3,2 and Beyond the Hills (2012) focus on specific hot button issues (abortion and religious fanaticism), the new movie is concerned with the broader functioning of everyday people amid a culture in which corruption is part of the oxygen. But taking the wider view, Mungiu has always been concerned with these issues. Abortion in 4,3,2 is neither right nor wrong. It is an attempt to seize back control of one’s life from an intrusive power structure. Beyond the Hills also transcends its more sensationalistic surface narrative and becomes another portrait of rebellion. Seen this way, Graduation, which is less spectacular in concept than its predecessors, is more somber and sad. It reveals how all-encompassing the moral decay radiating out of Bucharest has become, even after the reign of Ceausescu.
As he has done throughout his feature film career, Mungiu retains a detachment from his subject that forces the audience to reach many conclusions on their own. The violence to which Eliza is subjected is left off screen, so when she fails to identify a possible assailant in a police line-up toward the end of the story, we have no way of knowing whether this is an act of defiance on her part or a genuine answer. This omission of the inciting violence should remind anyone watching of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, which employs the identical technique. And that comparison is instructive, for in Graduation, Mungiu is exploring dramatic terrain that Farhadi has come to dominate over the past decade. Pairing a bolt of bad fortune with an intractable aspect of the surrounding society spins a regular man into a tense downward spiral that is likely headed for tragedy. To say that Mungiu does not spin this web as effectively as Farhadi is not meant to be a condemnation. Farhadi is the best in the world at this particular type of narrative.
Mungiu gets a lot of things right in Graduation. He has a brilliant performance from Adrian Titieni in the central role of Romeo. Titieni looks like a middle-aged doctor. He is a basically decent man who dotes on his only child and tries to be pleasant to his withdrawn wife, even though it is clear there has been no love between them for many years. He is also carrying on an affair with a former patient who teaches at Eliza’s school and is not above pulling strings behind the scenes to get what he wants, convincing himself that he is not really harming anyone in the process. In a word, Romeo is real – with both the admirable and disquieting qualities found in any real person.
Mungiu also has a firm conception of exactly how petty bureaucracies function. How one little favor can lead to another and another, and before long, the boundaries between little white lies and outright fraud become too blurry to notice. Among the best scenes in Graduation are the offhand conversations – always between men – about how a minor problem might be easily remedied.
The other strong sequences involve the things Mungiu does best. He is a master of the long take. There is one tour de force shot of Romeo, late in the film, wandering through darkened alleys and abandoned streets in search of a man he thinks may hold the key to deciphering the mystery of Eliza’s attack. It is one of several long takes that allows the audience to inhabit this confusing and always vaguely dangerous world.
Where Graduation falters is in its unnecessary subplot about Romeo’s affair. Running a little over two hours, with its restrained pace, there are times when Graduation can feel long. Cutting the subplot would have helped with that. But the affair, in combination which a barely developed third plotline involving Romeo’s aged mother, proves detrimental to the movie beyond the matter of pacing. It diverts attention away from its central theme about the way small deceptions can grow into large ones. Though the main part of Romeo’s troubles grow out of his attempts to aid his daughter, some of them grow out of his philandering, and still others grow out of his mother’s coincidental health problem. It can become confusing to decipher which issue informs subsequent decisions, and it crucially dilutes Eliza’s reaction to the choices Romeo makes.
This narrative laxity in an otherwise keenly observed and nuanced film is disappointing, but it does not exactly ruin things. There is too much quality observation throughout. There is palpable, undefined tension which is at the heart of Mungiu’s cinema. And as a realistic portrait of the pitfalls of fatherhood (Mungiu’s original title for the project was Family Photos), Graduation remains a powerful and engrossing examination.