Graduation (Bacalaureat)  

Romania (2016) Dir. Cristian Mungiu

Parents will do anything for their children. That is a given. But how much is too much? And who ultimately suffers if it gets out of hand – themselves or their children? Romania’s top social chronicler Cristian Mungiu returns with another sharply observed essay, wrapped around a slow burning crime drama.

Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is at the stage of his career where his reputation has earned him a network of highly influential friends. When his teenage daughter Eliza (Maria Drăgus) is the victim of an attempted rape outside of her school on the day before she is supposed to sit her exams, Aldea enlists his police officer friend Chief Inspector (Vlad Ivanov) in prioritising the case.

But in order for Aldea to have his problem solved, he is asked to help move a kidney transplant operation for corrupt vice-mayor Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru) up the list. Aldea and Bulai are also connected with the exam committee president (Gelu Colceag), the latter able to get Eliza certain concessions when sitting her exams. But as things start moving forward, this web of bureaucratic bacon saving begins to yield complications.

Following Mungiu’s previous film, the terrifying religious drama Beyond The Hills, Graduation is a return to the more relatable social drama of his breakthrough hit 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Boasting a spiralling plot with a bit of mystery behind it to keep us on edge, it is no less a stinging indictment of the self-serving back-scratching nature of society’s elite with every passing moment imbued with potent cynicism.

Eliza’s assault almost becomes incidental despite being the tiny snowball that keeps gathering momentum en route to becoming the giant icy boulder destined to explode upon impact at its final destination. It is not so much that Aldea loses sight of this; rather the chain of favours called in and debts newly created force him to embark on a new path, temporarily distracting him.

Living up to his name Romeo, Aldea’s affair with single mother schoolteacher Sandra (Mălina Manovic), another handy ally in the quest to getting Eliza into the exams, is known to both Eliza and her mother Magda (Lia Bugnar), a clearly depressed library worker whose relationship with Aldea is civil at best. What they both have in common is immense pride in their daughter and delight at her scholarship at a British university.

But Eliza needs to pass her exams and with her writing armed injured whilst defending herself against her attacker and the trauma of the incident, the school won’t let her sit, as rules are rules. This is where Aldea’s network of powerful friends comes in to play, swatting away the petty restrictions the jobsworth school principle hides behind.

And so begins a litany of bureaucratic malfeasance that is hardly abuse of power but certainly rules are tacitly bent and things discreetly juggled to satisfy all involved. The script is cleverly crafted to make it explicit the main players aren’t essentially bad or necessarily corrupt in that they have something to hide or are operating unlawfully, but they are blind to any sophistry of this being a victimless crime working against them.

Mungiu posits Aldea, as an honourable doctor, at the top of this pyramid of mutual circle jerking but by the end he has taken a rather vertiginous tumble to the bottom, his fellow cronies releasing their grip on him one by one. We should sympathise with Aldea, as out of everyone he is the least venal, yet he has brought this downfall on himself, partly inadvertently, partly in direct response to his poor decision making.

Yet his intentions are genuine for his daughter and although Eliza can’t see it, both Aldea and Magda are not pushing her for their own gratification and bragging rights as parents, they want her to have a better life away from the stultifying oppression of Cluj and make something of herself in the freer climate of the UK, a country they amusingly believe is less corrupt.

In the scenes between Aldea and Eliza, the mask of the well-connected doctor slips and a man of genuine sincerity is revealed, but they are laced with a tragic irony as Aldea tries to convince Eliza to let him fix things because he wants her to pass the exams for her, but she wants to do it on her own merits. This aching sadness where father and daughter are unable to understand each other ruins the only pure facet of this whole sorry saga.

Staying true to the mise-en-scene of his previous works, Mungiu retains his naturalistic cinema vérité filming style, captured through a hand held lens that moves when the cast do. Mungiu has that rare ability to keep the shots intimate yet never intrusive, keeping us on the periphery of the moment. Faces are rarely shown in close up, leaving a space around the actors to create a pervasive sense of emptiness, regardless of how many people are in the scene.

The HD images are striking and rich in depth that even the tentative dourness of the colour palette can’t subdue, a bleak effect complimented by the absence of a music soundtrack. In what could be seen as an contra-Hollywood move, having a pot bellied, grizzled forty-something lead like Adrian Titieni instead of a clean shaven hunk keeps the film grounded in reality as much as Titieni’s performance itself does.

As Titieni’s sparring partner Maria Drăgus does little to compromise Eliza’s role as the central conceit of the story, remaining sympathetic yet principled, supporting and scorning her father in equal measure. Lia Bugnar’s Magda is the wild card, portraying a woman we should support but is too difficult to read to do so, not a problem with Vlad Ivanov’s duplicitous Detective Inspector.

Graduation sees Mungiu once again in fine trenchant form, getting under the skin of his native Romania and getting under ours with another incisive and stark work of social urgency.