Graduation

Review by Trevor Johnston

Directed by

Cristian Mungiu

Starring

Adrian Titieni Maria-Victoria Dragus Rares Andrici

Anticipation.

A festival favourite with high quality-control, Cristian Mungiu is always one to watch.

Enjoyment.

The low-key subject matter and over-familiar surroundings soften its impact.

In Retrospect.

The very ordinariness of the material leaves us productively pondering what we might have done in the same situation.

Romania’s Cristian Mungiu returns with another understated (and excellent) social drama.

When a stone hurled by persons unknown crashes through the front window of a respected local doctor’s home, you just know that all is not going to end well in this latest from much-lauded Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu. Then again, things always go badly in Romania, it’s one of the defining tenets of the country’s celluloid New Wave, which has made such an impact internationally over the past decade or so.

They also tend to go badly for the characters in long, unfolding takes evoking the suffocating bleakness these people are facing – Ceausescu may be long gone, but change has been painfully slow in a society where corruption is so deeply ingrained. Certainly, from what we see of the unprepossessing provincial town where Graduation is set, you can hardly blame the story’s concerned dad for pushing his teenage daughter to land the scholarship she’s been offered by a university in England. Moreover, we feel his anguish when fate steps in and the poor girl is almost raped on her way to school, leaving her bright future hanging precariously in the balance.

In contrast to the terrifying prospect of illegal abortion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or the unsettling religious orthodoxy at the heart of Beyond the Hills, Mungiu’s previous outstanding offerings, the decidedly everyday subject of exam pressure makes this film somewhat more relatable. Still, as various dodgy options present themselves to Adrian Titieni’s hassled dad, we are certainly not in Kansas anymore, since here, if you’re a doctor with the power to tweak hospital waiting lists, then somehow exam results can always be… adjusted.

Yes, it’s a portrait of Romanian specificity, but the film is also a universally relevant moral poser – in the same position, would you or I do any different? After all, Titieni’s careworn protagonist considers himself a good guy who never takes bribes, so does bending the rules just this once make him a hypocrite? His missus obviously thinks so…

Hence, the level of ominous unease rises inexorably, in a way that will perhaps remind you of other arthouse nerve-tinglers, like Michael Haneke’s Hidden or Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman. Mungiu’s apparently drab social-realism doesn’t, at first glance, offer the same kind of cinematic rush, as his camera prowls around these spectacularly uninteresting small-town environs, and the excellent cast determinedly avoid anything too showy.

Look closer, however, and the sheer nuanced precision of his filmmaking offers its own chin-stroking rewards – say, in the way Mungiu shoots from inside cars, illustrating how these individuals see themselves as somehow insulated from their surroundings, or how he brings up the sound of barking dogs in the background to suggest the insistent thereness of Romania’s reality.

It’s subtle, incremental stuff, but that’s Mungiu’s patient craft, like the musical snippets of Handel and Vivaldi the characters listen to as a calming yet telling reminder of an ordered, enlightened realm in which they themselves just don’t live in any more. And neither, this probing, nervy and ultimately satisfying film suggests, do any of us.

Published 31 Mar 2017

Tags: Cristian Mungiu

Anticipation.

A festival favourite with high quality-control, Cristian Mungiu is always one to watch.

Enjoyment.

The low-key subject matter and over-familiar surroundings soften its impact.

In Retrospect.

The very ordinariness of the material leaves us productively pondering what we might have done in the same situation.

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