Review: Graduation (2016)
Graduation follows Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a doting father who works hard to ensure that his daughter has the opportunities to leave Romania and pursue an education in London. However, after his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is assaulted, her future is jeopardized and Romeo sets out to ensure she qualifies for her scholarship by any means possible. He compromises his principles at every turn in a quest to do the right thing for his daughter and justify her years of hard work, essentially giving into the corrupt society that he so desperately wants her to escape.
Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is a depiction of moral rot, of a country in such decay that no individual is untouched by its collective corruption and endless moral justifications. It’s a mundane tragedy, filmed in the classic arthouse style that favours long takes, minimal music, and muted emotions. It’s also a hell of a depressing film, undercutting any moments of levity with bitter irony. Fans of Michael Haneke will swoon, as will anyone familiar with Mungiu’s previous work, Beyond the Hills and Palme d’Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
At the centre of this remarkable work is Romeo, an outwardly upstanding man who’s well respected and dedicated to his family. Charting his moral disintegration—or rather, witnessing his true characteristics rise to the surface—allows us to understand Mungiu’s thesis about Romania and its people. While Romeo insists that he is a good man, that he would never cheat for his daughter or bribe officials to get what he wants, every consecutive scene puts the lie to Romeo’s initial assessment of himself. For instance, in one of the first scenes, we see him sleeping with a young woman who is not his wife (Lia Bugnar), showing that his dedication to family has limits. Later, we learn that this isn’t the first time he cheated to sidestep the bureaucracy—he avoided military service with similar dealmaking.
At every turn, Mungiu dismantles Romeo’s facade, laying bare his compromised morality and self-righteousness. We’re made to understand the ways in which Romeo represents his nation, but that Mungiu never turns the character into a simple allegory for the nation is a wonder. Romeo is often reprehensible, but he’s achingly human. If presented the same situation, it’s unlikely any of us would fare better than he does.
Graduation is a difficult film, similar to Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman in its combination of perceptive psychology and moral inquiry. It presents a moral question that has no proper solution, essentially showing how disconnection and sin can rot human relationships and aspirations. Its mundane visual style doesn’t allow us release in any moment. It’s almost repressive in its framing, using the anamorphic aspect ratio to isolate Romeo in the centre of the frame and trap the viewer in his poisonous sphere.
While many viewers will likely find Graduation overly toxic in its depiction of society, it offers an essential look at the ways people lie about themselves and conjure justifications for situations with no possibly ethical outcome.
8 out of 10
Graduation (2016, Romania/France/Belgium)
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu; starring Adrian Titieni, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Lia Bugnar, Malina Manovici, Vlad Ivanov.
This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.