Graduation Cannes review: A brilliant study in the small evils of cronyism

Director Cristian Mungiu follows a logic that begins with “Do me just this one favour . . . ”

Film Title: Graduation

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Starring: Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Lia Bugnar

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 127 min

Thu, May 19, 2016, 18:04

   

Romeo (Titeni) is a doctor living in a shabby Transylvanian town, characterised by shabby apartment blocks, rampant crime, stray dogs and systemic corruption. He has a wife and a mistress, but most of his attentions are focused on his teenage daughter, Eliza, who has lately won a scholarship to study psychology in the UK.

As Graduation opens, a brick is thrown through the physician’s window, the first of a series of misfortunes that make one think someone is out to get him. These niggling anxieties are overtaken when, on the eve of her final exams, Eliza is sexually assaulted. Romeo remains determined that the girl should sit her finals, lest she lose her one chance to get out of this far-flung place. He rues the day, post 1991, when he and his wife returned there: “We thought that we could change things,” he laments, “We thought that we could move mountains.”

Understandably, the traumatised Eliza messes up the test. Thus begins an epic struggle of lesser-evilism. If Romeo can just do this one favour for the godfather of a guy who works at the police station. And if the exam supervisor can just do this one favour for him. And so on. Then maybe these small fiddles will allow his daughter to escape to a life not dominated by fiddling.

The brilliant Romanian director Cristian Mungiu has plenty of Cannes Film Festival form: in 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days – a harrowing look at life and backstreet abortion under Ceaucescu – won the Palm d’Or; in 2012, he won Best Screenplay with the modern exorcism drama, Beyond the Hills.

Graduation sees the auteur returning to the societal crookedness explored in Tales from the Golden Age, the blackly comic 2009 portmanteau of sketches from Communist Romania. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: more than a quarter of a century later the same cronyism persists. In this new world everybody wants something from everybody else. Eliza’s mother Magda may protest about her husband’s interventions, but, as Romeo notes, even she realises that “in life there are winners and losers”.

Up-and-coming DOP Tudor Vladimir Panduru turns grimy exteriors and cluttering interiors into engaging compositions. Adrian Titieni is outstanding as the flawed hero. This isn’t as hard-hitting as Mungiu’s other Cannes contenders, but the subtleties of quiet backslapping and knowing-a-guy turn out to be plenty dramatic.