Review: Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation”

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The idea of a society where no one ever does the right thing conjures visions of anarchy and civilizational collapse; Cristian Mungiu, a pioneering writer and director in the Romanian New Wave filmmaking movement, is wise to the contrary. His new film Graduation, which won Mungiu a Best Director berth at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, depicts a world in which systematic immorality is consistent with a kind of civilizational stability.

Graduation opens on a street scene of a cluster of apartment buildings in Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second-largest metropolitan area. It’s far from a post-apocalyptic neighborhood, but everything in frame has seen better days—here’s a post-automobile, a post-lawn, a post-playground sitting rather sadly in the background. The very next shot takes us inside one of these apartments to a living room peacefully a world unto itself. There’s a wall full of family photos, a large still life of a placid breakfast scene, some fruit on the coffee table, and heirloom furniture defiantly at odds with the IKEA aesthetic we’ve grown accustomed to see furnish houses in European films. For a few blissful seconds, all is well in this corner of Romania. Then a rock comes flying through the window.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni), the doctor who lives here, shuffles onscreen to investigate and clean up the glass. He doesn’t seem all that perturbed, especially compared to his startled teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragas) and wife Magda (Lia Bugnar), whose wearied voice emanates from behind a closed bedroom door; when she emerges from her room some moments later, after husband and daughter have cleared out, you get the sense from her haggard look and stiffened body language that she’s seen this movie one too many times already.

The viewer would be well advised not to mistake Graduation for a whodunit. You never find out who threw that rock, nor does Romeo spend much time trying to track down the culprit; he’s more concerned with his daughter’s upcoming Baccalaureate exams. Eliza has been accepted into Cambridge on a generous scholarship, contingent upon excellent performance in her end-of-school-year tests. Romeo thrills to the prospect of sending his daughter away from their backwater city so she can have better choices in life than he and Magda ever did, but the possibility that Eliza might underperform and blow her one shot at escaping Romania keeps him on edge. While the whole household is fretting over the exams, Romeo has a slew of other problems to deal with: the affair with a younger woman he is trying to keep secret from Eliza (Magda evidently knows), his aging mother’s frailty and susceptibility to heart attacks, and his obligation to perform an under-the-table liver transplant for a man Romeo had bribed years ago to avoid the military draft.

As if this weren’t enough of a morass of stressful circumstances to get any parent’s heart racing, on the morning of her first exam Eliza is beaten up outside the school. Mungiu does not show us what exactly happens, leaving the question of sexual assault on the table, but he does make clear that whoever attacked Eliza has definitely broken her writing arm. A bit of a song-and-dance routine with the police ensues (this wouldn’t be a Romanian New Wave film without an absurdist sketch of the inefficiencies of bureaucracy), and finally Romeo confronts his daughter with a plan to make sure she can finish her exams and cash in on the Cambridge scholarship: cheat.

Eliza doesn’t want any part of this rule-breaking, but in the warped logic of this universe Romeo’s exhortation to vice is practically a virtue. For in the slice of Romanian society depicted in Graduation the adults have effectively grown so used to corruption and responding to their circumstances immorally that they have all forgotten what it looks like to do good in the first place. Critic Victor Morton has astutely called the film’s world a “Structure of Sin,” an apt description for the web of rationalized bad behavior that Mungiu spins tight across each one of the movie’s 128 minutes. According to Morton, “Graduation is not the story of a good man corrupted but a corrupt man trying to do ‘good’ (when it serves him and his) because society runs on corruption.”

Indeed, while Mungiu’s shaky cam and tight editing keep our anxieties high, society here appears to be getting along just fine—with the caveat that the only way anyone in it knows how to respond to sin is through the logic of sin. The way Mungiu blocks out his scenes further complicates our tendency to try to discern moral superiority in the way that actors are filmed. He frames almost every critical conversation in the film with both interlocutors occupying opposite sides of the shot, camera placed firmly between them, to prevent the viewer from making any moral judgments about the characters on aesthetic grounds.

Eliza, thanks to the malleability of her youth, is the closest we have to a morally neutral agent in the film. Thus, the central dramatic question of Graduation is not whether Romeo will ever identify who threw a rock through his window, but rather whether Eliza will follow her father’s advice and break the rules on her exams. Mungiu doesn’t give us a clear answer right away. As circumstances contrive to ratchet up Romeo’s anxiety—his mother suffers a heart attack, he grows suspicious that Eliza’s boyfriend might actually be the unseen assailant—he vents his frustration at Eliza’s indecisiveness in a heated confrontation where he calls her hesitation to cheat an act of disrespect for her parents’ wishes and their lifelong struggle to give her a better life.

Ay, there’s the rub: no matter how he may have initially framed it to his daughter, at heart Romeo believes his directive to cheat is a moral obligation, not a suggestion. How else could he redeem all of his and Magda’s pointless toil in a third-rate city and the absence of opportunity there than by obliging his daughter to act in accordance to principles that will, to the outside world at least, render Romeo’s parenting a success story?

Accentuating this moral bankruptcy is the place religion occupies (or doesn’t occupy) in Mungiu’s film. According to the Pew Research Center’s recent survey of the religious landscape of Central and Eastern Europe, Romania is a country where 86 percent of inhabitants identify as Orthodox Christians. Yet if Orthodoxy with its theology, liturgy, and community might have offered Mungiu’s characters an alternative to a culture of corruption and immorality, it long ago ceased to be in the picture in any potent way. The only appearance that Orthodoxy makes in the film is through icons, and lots of them—in Magda’s room most prominently, but also in the police station, on wall calendars, in the hospital—artifacts serving as windows into the Kingdom of God, where life is otherwise, and looking out on a people for whom it is never too late to course-correct.

Mungiu has been intensely critical of the Orthodox Church in his filmography, though never without due reason, so there’s little to suggest from his work that he sees Christianity as either a means out of Romania’s current cultural and political predicament or an end worth pursuing in itself. Still, he does have room for hope—as do his contemporaries. Corneliu Porumboiu’s 2015 film The Treasure ends on an uplifting note of selfless giving, and Cristi Puiu’s 2016 Sieranevada miraculously finds a way to depict the coexistence, however combative, of the religiously apathetic, the old guard of anti-Church Communists, a younger generation of pro-Church Monarchists, and a humble new flock of seminary graduates around one microcosmic dinner table.

Mungiu makes his own attempt at turning away from pessimism, which marked the endings of his previous films, toward hopefulness in the final shot of Graduation. The clouds part and the film’s standard palette of blues, greens, and grays finally admits a diffuse orange light into the frame, just as Eliza reveals to her father that she made peace with finishing her exams without cheating after all. Whether she ended up scoring high enough to retain her scholarship is a question left unanswered, though judging by Eliza’s smile in the sun’s luminescent glow, she just might have found an alternative to the meritocratic anti-morality that has ensnared her parents and their society for so long.

A corrupt society won’t be changed all of a sudden by the actions of a single teenager, but Eliza’s example to her father is not something to be brushed aside easily. Like the virtuous father in Porumboiu’s The Treasure who uses his share in the eponymous riches to buy and distribute jewelry to children on the playground, Eliza has taken a step toward reclaiming a better understanding of duty and morality. A society doesn’t necessarily require a coherent or even true conception of virtue to function with a semblance of stability, as Alasdair MacIntyre has so persuasively shown in After Virtue. All the more reason, then, to hold fast to those stories that help us to see beyond the messiness of our current sociopolitical predicaments and to learn not just what morality really looks like, but how it is practiced for the benefit of our flourishing.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Tim Markatos

Tim Markatos is a film critic and graphic designer who lives in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, where he studied classical languages and French. You can find his work at timmarkatos.com and follow him on Twitter @timmarkatos.