Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about corruption. That’s true despite the fact that Mungiu underplays the typical elements found in tales about this subject: You won’t find many fast-talking crooks, sinister cops or elaborate sting operations here. Or a looming sense of justice and judgment, or even tragedy. You’ll just find mostly good people doing what they think is right, and then the acute mess that they find themselves in.
Mungiu’s primary vessel for exploring this world is Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a respected Cluj physician and upstanding pillar of the community whose high-school-senior daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) has secured a conditional college scholarship to study in Britain; all she has to do is pass her final exams. But an attempted assault outside the school leaves her injured and shaken right before the day of her first test. Believing that an education in England — far from the despair and deception of daily life in Romania — is the girl’s best and only chance for a better life, Romeo finds himself becoming what he hates most: someone who tries to game the system.
But it happens slowly, without him quite realizing it. Romeo first has to convince the school officials to let the girl take her first exam with a cast on her hand. That violates the rules, as kids have been known to cheat using such devices. But Romeo is Romeo, he knows the right people, and he has a way of softly talking his way into things. Then, when Eliza’s grade on that test winds up unsatisfactory, his police captain friend (Vlad Ivanov, a face unnervingly familiar to anyone who’s seen Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) arranges for Romeo to talk to Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), a local bigwig who needs a liver transplant and who can arrange for the school authorities to give the girl the necessary grade; all Romeo has to do is put Bulai at the top of the liver transplant list.
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Such a cursory description of the plot does no justice to the casual, organic way that Mungiu allows Romeo to consider forsaking his values — or at least what Romeo thinks are his values. He fancies himself an idealist, above deceit and graft until misfortune suddenly strikes his family. He reflects plaintively about how he and his wife Magda returned to Romania from abroad to try and make the country a better place. Driving through the city’s drab, desolate streets in his fancy sedan, listening to Baroque music, Romeo imagines himself in a cocoon of honesty, when in fact, it’s one of privilege. Not for nothing is one of the film’s earliest images a rock thrown against his windshield. We eventually realize that Graduation is partly about how people like Romeo have always benefited from cutting corners, from the insular security of their connections and their status.
At the same time, Mungiu refuses to condemn these characters. We sense throughout Graduation that what we’re watching is a way of operating that has insinuated itself into daily life because, unlike everything else, it works. Institutions are inadequate: Eliza’s assailant might be an escaped convict, so the law has already failed her; meanwhile, the school’s stringent policies are ineffective at dealing with a student’s very serious crisis. Romeo and his friends are merely taking advantage of the existing order of things. But what about those less fortunate — a group that includes Romeo’s own mistress, whose son needs a speech therapist but whom the good doctor, ever so certain of his rectitude, refuses to help?
Graduation is about relatively mundane occurrences, but as Romeo is pulled further and further from his moral certainty, the film becomes incredibly gripping and unsettling. Mungiu’s subtle visual style also enhances the suspense, plunging Romeo further into darkness as he falls deeper down the well. One evening, thinking he’s seen his daughter’s assailant on the street, he jumps out of a bus in pursuit of the man. Romeo runs into an empty slum, the night pitch black around him, and finds himself alone, out of breath and afraid. He looks around in bewilderment, like someone who’s experiencing night, solitude and uncertainty for perhaps the first time in his life. It’s an indelible image: a good man forced to confront his own fallen soul.