In the opening moments of Graduation, the latest drama from Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu (Beyond the Hills, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), a rock comes crashing through a window into the home of Romeo, a local physician. Who threw it? Was it intended to damage Romeo’s home? Or was it an accident? Romeo fails to locate the responsible party, so there are no answers to these questions. We see Romeo put a piece of cardboard over the hole and its spider web of cracks, trying to contain the damage.
A random act and its unintended consequences become a central theme of Graduation. Romeo’s daughter, Eliza, is taking her final exams that will seal her acceptance to Cambridge University. It’s her ticket out of the dead-end Romanian town that’s the only home she’s ever known. When Romeo drops his daughter off a few blocks from school, an incident occurs that will put those exams and Eliza’s entire future in jeopardy. And then there’s the fact that Romeo dropped Eliza off hastily not because he was late for work, but rather because he wanted to sneak in some time with his young mistress.
These events occur early in the first act of the film. The remainder of the film explores the resulting spider web of cracks that splinter the lives and relationships of the characters. Graduation is, at its most literal, an indictment of the corrupt practices in Romanian government and bureaucracy where one “favor” begats another “favor”, and bribery is commonplace. Romeo is considered a “good man” because he doesn’t extort additional payment from his patients like so many of his colleagues. But then there’s the fact that Romeo dropped Eliza off hastily not because he was late for work, but rather because he wanted to sneak in some time with his young mistress.
Below its narrative surface, Graduation examines personal ethics and asks if we only do the right thing when the right thing is easy. As the film unfolds, characters continually justify their bad behavior with rationalizations. How far would a good father go to assure the quality of his daughter’s exam scores so she can leave Romania and pursue a better life? How far should he go? Does he have an obligation to do the “wrong” thing if the result is “right”? Which is more important: the act or the intent? If you do something immoral or unethical, but the end goal is laudable, does that render your behavior acceptable, maybe even admirable?
The emotions in Graduation are muted. Its populated by characters who are paralyzed by their circumstances. Whether romantic, professional, medical or legal, each member of the cast labors under a burden that cannot be easily set aside. Mungiu might argue that it’s only when this pressure is applied that you discover who a person really is, who you may truly be. No one lives in a vacuum. Choices flow from circumstances. While the film details the spider web of cracks resulting from a single traumatic event, it never forgets the gaping hole that needs to be repaired to make everything (or everyone) whole again.
Graduation opens at Landmark Theatre locations across the country on Friday, May 19, 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.