The most searing, compelling, insightful moral dramas in current cinema are coming from across the pond. Think of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar winner “The Salesman,” or recent Oscar nominees like “Mustang” and “Leviathan.”
Near the top of this list are the films of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, the international cinema giant best known for 2007’s harrowing, heartbreaking abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and 2012’s grim “Beyond the Hills.” He is back with “Graduation,” and it’s another piercing, conversation-starting masterpiece.
Like Mingiu’s past works and the other films of the Romanian New Wave, “Graduation” is ethically complex, sharply political and shot in a minimalist style. Here, that means long, static takes centered around conversation, often with two characters in the frame.
This style succeeds in giving “Graduation” an almost documentary feel. Indeed, the events of the film unfold in such a way that it’s not hard to imagine that these same scenes are playing out for real around the world, right now.
A remarkably ordinary-looking actor named Adrian Titieni stars as Romeo Aldea, a late-middle-aged doctor living in Transylvania with his wife and daughter. He is ever-stressed, a man who is dealing with a series of difficult situations -- most of his own making,
Chief among these is his teenage daughter’s future. She is Eliza (Maria Drăguș), an 18-year-old studying for her exams. Her goal -- or, more specifically, her father’s goal -- is for Eliza to score high enough on her exams to study abroad in London.
Also in the picture is Romeo’s wife and Eliza’s mother, Magda (Lia Bugnar). It becomes clear that she and Romeo are trapped in a loveless marriage. In fact, Romeo is having an affair with Sandra (Mălina Manovici), a caring, much younger single mother.
Occasionally, we see Romeo at work as a physician. But mostly, his world revolves around Eliza and, to a much lesser extent, Sandra.
The family’s already tension-filled existence is rocked dramatically when Eliza is raped outside of school. There’s a matter-of-factness -- a clinical coldness -- in the aftermath. As Eliza weeps and her mother clutches her tightly, questions fly, and Romeo’s brow furrows. (In a telling moment, when a repairman refers to Eliza’s rape, Romeo quickly responds, “No, my girl wasn’t raped. Just assaulted.”)
Romeo’s thoughts quickly turn not to his daughter’s health and safety, but the possible impact on her next few days. What, Romeo wonders, does this mean for Eliza’s exams, and the ultimate goal -- getting her out of Romania? Ensuring her acceptance in the U.K. becomes the central purpose of Romeo’s existence for the course of the film.
A friend advises him to contact a well-known local political fixer, and soon comes a fascinating conversation with the exam inspector. The dialogue is a strange mix of modesty, suggestion and backhanded compliments, and the result is a specific direction for Eliza, one bordering on cheating.
Perhaps predictably, Magda is opposed, and Eliza clearly confused. Romeo, of course, has no doubts. As he works to pressure his daughter into taking advantage of this “opportunity,” more trouble occurs. Romeo’s ill mother collapses, it transpires that Sandra may be pregnant, Eliza discovers her father’s affair, and suddenly police are asking the doctor some troubling questions.
Meanwhile, there are shades of something more sinister. The film opened with a rock tossed through the family’s window, while similar unsettling occurrences follow. There’s even a “Blow Up”-esque scene in which Romeo believes he’s spotted Eliza’s boyfriend in surveillance footage from the attack.
These plot threads never quite coalesce, and it seems as if Mingiu is not particularly interested in such loose ends. Instead, the director is concerned with the morals of all involved, especially those of Romeo.
When “Graduation” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film festival, Mingiu shared Best Director honors with Olivier Assayas, director of another of 2017’s finest releases, “Personal Shopper.” It is easy to see why the complexities of “Graduation” resonated with the Cannes jury.
The film should also resonate in North America. The concepts at play here -- what constitutes cheating, the ramifications of an unlevel playing field, the tangled relationships between parents and children, the realization that there is no future in the place one calls home -- swirl every day. Rarely, however, are they brought to the screen with this level of intelligence and insight.
4 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Adrian Titieni, Maria Drăguș, Lia Bugnar, Mălina Manovici
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Running time: 128 minutes
Rated: R for language
The Lowdown: A Romanian father is driven to extremes as he attempts to protect his daughter’s future.