Words

David Jenkins

Graduation – first look review

The 2007 Palme d’Or winner returns to Cannes with another gripping and meticulous drama.

You could probably pen an A-Z series of doorstop-sized scholarly studies on the subject of corruption in movies, but there are scarce few titles which present corruption as a necessary evil. Cristian Mungiu’s superb latest, which screened as part of the 2016 Cannes competition, dares to muzzle the righteous anger in favour of taking a more measured and humane look at how something as simple as asking for a cheeky, life-sweetening favour can bring your whole world tumbling down.

Romanian society is viewed through the blotted prism of a high school student sitting her final exams and who is a cigarette paper’s breadth away from securing a scholarship at a prestigious UK university. Meanwhile, her respected father, a doctor, is happy to gently manipulate conditions to work in her favour. His actions become an obligation when she is attacked by a mystery assailant the day before her big Romanian test – her wellbeing is very much secondary to the idea that circumstances might lead her to miss this opportunity of a lifetime.

It’s a very grim situation, and Mungiu shows how easy it is to take a bite from the forbidden fruit, where sometimes you might not even realise what it is that you’re tasting. The father, Romeo, is compelled not only by a desire to see his daughter succeed where he didn’t, but takes action as a way to stop the culture of corruption slipping over to the younger generation. He wants to fix Romania.

But, as we’re gradually led to realise, it may be too late. Ethical purity can only exist if everyone is ethically pure. If you’re benignly complicit in the ill deeds of others, then you’re already on the dark side. And it’s rarely a case of a lone incident – corruption is usually part of a sprawling network of small fixes, it’s a disease that spreads through human contact.

Graduation doesn’t crank up the drama to the levels of bellowing hysteria in the same way as his previous films – 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and 2012’s Beyond the Hills. And this more measured approach makes this a work that’s easier to like than to love. As detailed and perceptive as it is, this also feels like his most academic film, as the tenor of the performances and the general mellowness of the discourse mean that florid emotion is noticeable in its absence. It’s a cold world full of cold people who are just trying to get by, but Mungiu’s greatest achievement is making us understand why Romeo is doing what he does, and how he is silently suffers with his blackened conscience.

Mungiu makes this stuff look very easy, filming in spare, unobtrusive medium shots and just observing as the world goes by. The editing is curt and the order of material is exemplary, as Romeo’s rounds take him between his work, the office of the local police chief (a high school pal), his ailing mother, his depressed wife and the home of a younger woman with whom he’s having an affair. Romeo is single-minded in his mission, and Graduation is a film about trying to give his unyielding pushiness a rational basis. Is he a good man in a bad world, or vice versa?

Tags: Cristian Mungiu Romanian Cinema

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