Graduation (Sundance Selects, R)

From Romeo’s point of view, his family is already in hell and he’s just seeking a road out for his daughter.

Every year, Americans are treated to the spectacle of high school students and their parents agonizing over the college admissions process, particularly among those aiming for schools with the most prestigious brand names. It would be instructive for anyone who has been caught in that fury, or who will be facing it in the future, to watch Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, which offers a grim look at an even more high-stakes process in a country where most people have far fewer, and far less desirable, alternatives.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) and his family live in a small town in Romania. He’s a physician, so his family is not abjectly poor, but Romeno and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) are acutely aware of how their lives have been stunted by living in a corrupt, poor, and largely hopeless country. Romeo wants above all else for his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) to escape, to migrate to a country where she can develop her talents and live in freedom. Fortunately, Eliza is a star student at the local high school and has been offered a scholarship to study psychology in London. She’s almost there, with the final hurdle before taking up her new life in England that she must do well on her exit exams.

Normally, that would be no problem: Eliza is both smart and motivated, and she’s always done well at school before. But the day before the exams begin, she’s assaulted near her school. While she avoids being raped (something that is bizarrely important to Romeo), Eliza now has a cast on one arm and is understandably traumatized by the experience. There’s no option of delaying the multi-day exams on medical grounds, so Eliza must take them in her somewhat damaged condition or not at all. Since the latter option would mean the end of her chance to go to Britain to study, she soldiers on, but has more difficulty than expected.

What’s a father to do? The local police inspector (Vlad Ivanov, who played the abortionist in Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) suggests Romeo step over to the dark side, exchanging favors and bribes to ensure Eliza’s reported scores are everything they need to be. Romeo blanches at the thought because he thinks of himself as an ethical person (never mind the mistress he thinks no one else knows about), but once he starts down the road of corruption, he quickly learns how easy it is to move from acts that are morally ambiguous to those that are downright criminal. He also learns that, basically, everyone is at least a bit shady, because that’s often the only way to get anything done.

Graduation is a slow-paced film that runs just over two hours, featuring many long, fixed-camera scenes that allow the actors to convey the nuances of their situations and choices as well as the information presented in their dialogue. The lack of a score emphasizes the sparseness of the characters’ lives and helps reinforce the film’s semi-documentary feel. Graduation could have done with a bit of trimming, since it begins to feel repetitive and overly didactic by its final minutes, but that’s a minor quibble regarding an otherwise powerful film.

Cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru won’t be hired by the Romanian Tourist Board any time soon, but he does a masterly job creating the visual world of this film. Exterior shots present a grubby small town offering little but ugliness and decay, while the hospital where Romeo works looks like something that might have been up-to-date in America 50 or 60 years ago. In contrast, the interior of people’s homes are generally well kept, suggesting they understand it’s best to tend to what you can control and not worry about the rest. If your society as a whole is completely out of whack, after all, you will only waste your energies being concerned about abstractions like justice and fair play.

Titieni is on camera for much of the film, underlining the fact that this story is ultimately about Romeo and what he does with the choices he’s offered. There’s a popular saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but from Romeo’s point of view, his family is already in hell and he’s just seeking a road out for his daughter. Mungiu isn’t about to let him off the hook so easily, however, and as the film progresses, you may start to wonder whether Romeo is more concerned with his daughter or with feeding his own ego. | Sarah Boslaugh

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