Cannes 2016 – Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)

“People should help each other,” explains Vice-Mayor Bulai to doctor Romeo Aldea. Bulai needs a liver transplant and the national waiting list is too long. The doctor is trying to make sure his daughter passes her final high school exams to get a scholarship at a British university. They will make an exchange: both are ready to infringe the law to solve their problems. In contemporary Romania, people can help each other.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) lives with his wife and daughter in a grim housing complex in a medium-sized Romanian city. Magda (Lia Bugnar) is a middle-aged librarian with serious signs of depression, while her daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is a successful high school student ready to start university. Romeo has a lover, Sandra (Malina Manovici), mother of one and teacher at Eliza’s school. One morning, Romeo drives his daughter for her final baccalaureate tests, dropping her a few meters from school and rushing to his lover’s apartment. He receives a phone call minutes after: Eliza has been assaulted and nearly raped. Her arm is broken and she is severely distressed. Her performance in the exams, on which a British university scholarship depends, is seriously threatened.

Graduation (Bacalaureat) follows Romeo’s efforts to make sure Eliza gets the high marks she needs. His position as a chief doctor in the city’s hospital gives him the power to exchange “favours,” and as soon as he gets one, he owes one. These commitments start to agitate his professional prestige and an already fragile family structure. Romeo is emotionally distant to Magda and particularly troubled by Eliza’s transition to adulthood. The exams become a stronger issue for the father than for the girl, as the British scholarship seems to directly redeem the father’s frustrations.

An overall correct film, Graduation lacks the ferocity of Mungiu’s previous works, while personal conflicts seem exceedingly tailored to complicate the film’s plot. The Dardenne brothers served as producers this time, and it’s easy to suspect they could’ve heavily influenced this film. The Belgian siblings shoot some of the most interesting cinema nowadays, but by adopting their subtle style, Mungiu undermines the tension and immediacy of the characters, unlike those presented in Beyond the Hills and Palme d’Or winner 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days. Titieni’s pivotal role is quite effective but narrowed by the film’s rigid, flat storytelling. In his attempt to interweave a more complex plot, Mungiu wastes his talent for awakening the sense of compassion in the audience.

The most interesting layer of the film is the insight on corruption as a way of life in Romania. In this study, a felony is triggered by the desire for high-quality education, a cause considered respectable, setting up the dilemma of the film: how wrongly are you allowed to act in search of good. The question also draws a blurry frontier between the traffic of influence and flagrant corruption. By this point, the subject becomes more an issue of the human condition than a particularly Romanian problem. However, Romeo’s resentments quickly drag the focus back to Eastern Europe, loudly reflecting the burden of being a poor country in a rich continent, and portraying Romania’s urge to catch up with its Western neighbours.