Graduation review: a brilliant study of the soul-crushing power of corruption

Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu returns to the theme of moral compromise, as a good doctor’s tries to help his daughter win a college scholarship

Graduation
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Director: Cristian Mungiu
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Adrian Titieni, Maria Drăguş, Lia Bugnar, Mălina Manovici, Vlad Ivanov, Gelu Colceag, Rareş Andrici, Petre Ciubotaru
Running Time: 2 hrs 7 mins

At the heart of Cristian Mungiu’s latest labyrinthine investigation of Romanian malaises we find one of the oldest, most irresistible (and arguably forgivable) of motivations for corruption.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a middle-aged doctor of some standing, is not immune to compromises or moral transgression. He makes no great effort to engage with his wife’s apparent depression. He is carrying on an affair with a significantly younger woman. But Romeo does seem to be largely honest in his professional dealings.

When a needy patient offers him financial inducement – and suggests that this is how things are done – he makes a decent effort to push the envelope away.

What nudges him over the edge is a naïve, sentimental desire to see his daughter escape the enfolding moral pestilence. Love is part of it. But there is also a yearning for vicarious redemption.

Mungiu is a master of such knotted dilemmas. His breakthrough film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, engaged with the issue of abortion in the Ceausescu era. Beyond the Hills dealt with rumours of possession. The new film is not quite so skull-shaking, but its moral rigour remains irresistible. One step towards corruption leads to an irreversible entanglement.

Mungiu takes care not to press his thumb too heavily on the scale. Romeo is not saving the girl from imminent death or dismemberment. (Indeed, the words “it could have been much worse” are uttered at least twice.) But the situation is grave. We begin with him driving Eliza (Maria Dragus) to school. Dropping her off a few metres short of the building, he heads off for a morning tryst with his girlfriend Sandra (Malina Manovici). A phone call then reveals that Eliza was assaulted almost immediately after stepping from the vehicle. She was not raped, but her arm is in a cast and she seems too physically and mentally shaken to take her final exams.

This matters because the young woman needs to maintain a stratospheric grade average to secure a scholarship for study at a prestigious British university. The alternative is a place at Cluj and (so Romeo suggests) more of the same compromises. Then an opportunity arises to fix the exam results. If a liver donor is found for this prestigious patient then . . . Hang on a minute. Liver donor? This is beginning to sound awfully like Ireland. What possible relevance could such a plot have to our new shiny Republic? Only much older viewers will see any point of comparison. Right?

Anyway, Romeo convinces himself that he and his family, as victims of an unhappy accident, have the right to bends the rules just a little. Slowly, uneasily, he finds himself patching larger lies over successive cracks in his shaky narrative.

There are some shades of Michael Haneke's work in the piece (heightened by the presence of Dragus, one of the children from The White Ribbon). Before that fateful drive to school, a rock is thrown through the family's living-room window. Is that dog forever lurking in the background the same one that Romeo narrowly avoided in his car? As with Haneke's Hidden, the audience is invited to keep eyes peeled for solutions to this secondary mystery.

Mungiu’s aesthetic is, however, more closely bound to the real word. Utilising hugely long takes, he invites his characters to talk through their worries in closely written duologues that insinuate hidden motivations into every phrase. What emerges is a male-dominated society that – at its apex – seems resigned to repetitions of the same old evils. (Romeo and his wife briefly discuss their mistake in returning hopefully to Romania after the fall of Ceausescu.)

Yet there is some hope here. There are suggestions that the next generation might think differently. A rich film that repays serious pondering.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist

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