After winning the big kahuna in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and returning in 2012 with Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu competes once again for the Palme d’Or in Cannes with Graduation (Bacalaureat). Although this latest realist slice of life satisfies on many levels, fans expecting another scorcher from one of the Romanian New Wave’s premier-league directors are likely to feel mildly disappointed. This study of a family under pressure feels weirdly low-octane for a tale that encompasses sudden vandalism, criminal corruption, and an attempted rape. Sure, it has Mungiu’s usual visual brio, and thematically there’s a noticeable overlap with his previous stories of good-intentions reaping cruel rewards. But it’s an altogether cooler, quieter, more academic work than usual, one still likely to sell abroad especially to cinephile territories like France, but maybe not for the same markup.
In Cluj, a Transylvanian city famous mainly for its well-liked international film festival, Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni, from The Death of Mr. Lazarescu andChild’s Pose) is a helicopter parent, hovering over his only child, high-school senior Eliza (22-year-old Maria Dragus, who played a key role as a teen in The White Ribbon). Romeo’s wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) seems battered down by the steamroller of her husband’s quiet but crushing will for their child to succeed, and spends most of her time drifting around the family apartment in a depressive fog. Elsewhere, Romeo’s own mother (Alexandra Davidescu) is in declining mental and physical health.
Indeed, in Romeo and seemingly the film’s (and perhaps Mungiu’s) own view, the whole country in is declining moral health. In the very first scene, someone throws a brick through the window of the Aldeas’ apartment, and later one of his car windows is pointlessly smashed. Far more troubling, Eliza is assaulted by a strange man (he nearly rapes her but can’t go through with it, and her wrist is fractured defending herself) mere yards from the school gates.
Of course, Romeo’s first concern is for his child’s well-being. But Titieni and Mungiu suggest with occluded hints and expressions that Romeo’s even more het up about how this attack will affect Eliza’s performance on her final exams, tests that she must get high marks for in order to enroll at the British schools that have provisionally accepted her. Discussing the assault with the local policeman (Vlad Ivanov, the odious abortionist in 4 Months), Romeo works out that via a complex series of deals with Deputy Major Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), who needs a liver transplant, and the chief exam inspector (Gelu Colceag), who in turn owes Bulai a favor, Romeo could ensure that Eliza gets the top mark she needs. As she agrees to be a co-conspirator, that is.
Muddying the already murky waters further, Romeo is having an affair with Sandra (Malina Manovici), a vampish teacher at Eliza’s school with a young child of her own (David Hodorog), a creepy little kid who nearly always wears a mask. Sandra has an agenda of her own, like nearly everyone in the film, including Eliza’s hottie of a boyfriend (Rares Andrici) who doesn’t want Eliza moving away because he loves her. Only Eliza herself is the unknown quantity here. Dragus keeps a poker face for most of the film (apart, naturally, from when she’s recovering from her attack). Anyway cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru (replacing Mungiu’s usual DoP Oleg Mutu) often films her the back of her head for whole scenes, partly in order the shift the visual focus away from the characters one would expect. This is particularly obvious in a crucial police line-up scene, where four potential suspects are brought in for Eliza to identify her attacker and her face is completely turned away. The audience can only see the men in the line-up and, tellingly, the face of Romeo, a man who in his own very different way has also hurt this young woman.
It’s clever grace notes like that which remind viewers, even unconsciously, why Mungiu has such an elevated position compared to his peers. Like Cristi Puiu, whose Sieranevada is also in competition in Cannes this year, Mungiu has a technical mastery of his craft which is so effortless, so subtle, and so insidiously naturalistic that less observant viewers can easily fail to spot the skill and think it’s nothing more than a bunch of Romanians babbling while the camera jerks around a lot. Graduation isn’t one of Mungiu’s finest, but even a restrained, emotionally measured work like this is more interesting and provocative than many another director’s best effort.
Production companies: A Mobra Films presentation of a Why Not Productions, Les Films du Fleuve,
France 3 Cinema co-production
Cast: Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Lia Bugnar, Malina Manovici, Vlad Ivanov, Gelu Colceag, Rares Andrici, Petre Ciubotaru, Alexandra Davidescu, Emanuel Parvu, Lucian Ifrim, Gigi Ifrim, Adrian Vancica, Orsolya Moldovan
Director/screenwriter/producer: Cristian Mungiu
Executive producer: Tudor Reu
Co-producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat, Vincent Maraval, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Jean Labadie
Director of photography: Tudor Vladimir Panduru
Production designer: Simona Paduretu
Editor: Mircea Olteanu
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 127 minutes