Lower Education: Graduation

GraduationGraduation
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Opens April 7

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The protagonist of Graduation, the solid fourth feature film by 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days writer-director Cristian Mungiu, fancies himself to be above all a man of integrity. A physician living in a small Romanian town who dresses crisply, listens to a constant stream of opera, and is fanatical about peeling his fruit, Romeo (Adrian Titieni) certainly seems to be invested in keeping up a smart appearance. But this is also a man who takes his democratic ideals very seriously, making the corruption endemic to the post-Ceauşescu order particularly difficult for him to stomach. Naturally, he wants nothing but the best for his college-age daughter, Eliza (The White Ribbon’s Maria Dragus)—which to him means sending her as far west as possible. As the film opens, she has in hand a scholarship to read psychology at Cambridge, and her father is thrilled about it.

For her part, Eliza—who is, unlike her father, close with her depressive mother (Lia Bugnar) and has a steady boyfriend as well (Rares Andrici)—has many more hesitations about leaving. Not that her father seems to notice. Mungiu’s dense and intricately plotted investigation into the contagion of moral compromise gets underway in earnest as Eliza is assaulted the day before the first of her final exams, which she must do well on in order to maintain the scholarship. At first Dad reacts by applying an unseemly amount of pressure to get the injured and traumatized girl to show up to the exams at all; before you know it, he’s trading favors with various officials to ensure her scores are up to snuff. In trying desperately to rescue his daughter from Romania’s entrenched culture of corruption, then, Romeo winds up giving in to that very culture himself. And as it threads through its various twists and turns—subplots involving Romanian New Wave staple Vlad Ivanov, as the sly policeman heading up the assault investigation, and Malina Manovici, as a former patient of the doctor’s with whom he’s begun an affair, beget still other subplots—the film often just narrowly avoids seeming contrived.

In many ways, Graduation, for which Mungiu won best director at Cannes last year (a prize he shared with Personal Shopper’s Olivier Assayas), feels like a sort of opening up for its director. The film keys into the stressful long-take realism of the filmmaker’s two previous masterpieces, the illegal-abortion saga 4 Months and the even more harrowing exorcism story Beyond the Hills, while doing away with their cloistered settings. But Graduation perhaps bears most resemblance to a Romanian New Wave work that’s not quite in the same league as Mungiu’s earlier two films: Călin Peter Netzer’s admirable 2013 film Child’s Pose, another knotty drama in which an overbearing parent becomes a sort of fixer behind the scenes for a child whose future is on the line. Graduation ultimately registers as a scrupulous study of family life in collision with the national pastime of influence peddling. But it’s a testament to the clarity and intensity of Mungiu’s vision that one has grown to expect a little more from him.

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