Romeo Aldea’s phone keeps ringing insistently everywhere he goes, but the doctor never answers it. And no wonder. He has a dissatisfied mistress, a depressed, neglected wife, and someone unknown just smashed a rock through his living room window. But nothing can deter Aldea (Adrian Titieni) from his number one goal: steering his bright only child, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), to a coveted place at a British university—and the hell out of their native Romania.
Well, more than one shoe is going to drop for the good doctor over the course of Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation. Mungiu directed the celebrated 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a touchstone of the Romanian New Wave and a look back at the grim privations of the Ceausescu era. Today the filmmaker brings us up to date, examining a family’s aspiration to first world problems in a place that doesn’t always feel quite like the first world. A shocking assault on Eliza that disrupts her all-important exams, plus a number of adjacent complications, lead Aldea into a cesspool of bribery, small-town power games, and abuse of his hospital position. Romanians now have food, cars, and smartphones. But has the country really changed?
Mungiu tackles the question with an intriguing mix of subtle shading and brisk exposition. Dialogue, especially between indifferent husband and morose wife, ring a little on-the-nose. Other exchanges between the doctor and a tough local cop (Vlad Ivanov, who played the abortionist in 4 Months) bristle with one-upmanship, pregnant with dangled offers. Weathered apartment blocks and seedy neighborhoods reinforce a sense of exhausted hopes and wasted time. No wonder Aldea brushes off Eliza’s ambivalence about leaving, so badly does he want her to uproot herself. The Ceausescu era was all about survival. Now the struggle between the impulse to flee and the desire to stay adds a whole new level of social and personal tension.
Anxiety mounts as the phlegmatic Aldea tangles with knaves: teachers on the take, detectives sniffing out baksheesh, and an ebullient kingpin angling for a liver transplant between shots of booze. Dr. Romeo’s girlfriend has needs, too, trading on their intimacy to pull his short and curlies. A school, a birthday party, and the office where the doctor works become tainted settings for accumulating crimes. It is hard to like the aloof, controlling physician, but you can’t help but feel sorry for him as his situation grows more suffocatingly complicated and intractable.
Is Mungiu is rehashing familiar themes with Graduation, as some critics charge? Yes and no. As in his earlier films, the director depicts decent people forced to defile their own honor by bleak ethical options. But Mungiu has added some stylish new flourishes to his repertoire. Famously long takes run shorter and the story moves faster. Graduation skillfully genre-hops, too, with forays into kitchen-sink drama, morality play, and even psychological thriller.
However, Romanian corruption merits a deeper cinematic look beyond a mere statement of the problem. In recent years, mass anti-corruption demonstrations have brought down a Romanian government and forced rollbacks of laws that allowed criminals to go free. But the country remains in the grip of a force that won’t let go. Conversations among the ensnared in the doctor’s world hint at the reasons why. “Everybody does it,” murmurs one man. “You and I don’t do this,” mutter others, acting as though their double-dealing isn’t really happening. Amorality gives macho types an odd occasion to vent a tender side, sentimentalizing corrupt deeds as gestures of nurturing, generosity, and kindness.
In this circle, everyone has an excuse. The rueful film’s last shot of snappily dressed, fresh-faced high school graduates may suggest a better world to come. Ba deloc? as Romanians might say, an expression somewhere between “Is that so?” and “No such thing.”