‘Of course, corruption is not good. But people are complex’
Cristian Mungui: 'It is not a very coherent movement to the extent that there was never any formal aesthetic criteria or manifesto’
Cristian Mungiu at the Graduation photocall during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival last year. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/Getty Images
Adrian Titieni in Graduation. Photograph: courtesy of Mobra Films
To say that Romanian cinema punches above its weight would be an understatement bordering on the bigly. Since the mid-aughts, the Romanian new wave has dominated the festival circuit. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a gallows comedy about catastrophic gaps in the healthcare system, took the Un Certain Regard prize from Cannes in 2005.
The same French jamboree has subsequently handed gongs over to Corneliu Porumboiu for 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), Police, Adjective (2009) and The Treasure (2015) and to Cristian Nemescu for California Dreamin’ (2007).
Fellow national Cristian Mungui, has been even more successful on the Croisette, having scored the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), best screenplay for Beyond the Hills (2012), and, most recently, best director for Graduation (2016).
“It is not a very coherent movement to the extent that there was never any formal aesthetic criteria or manifesto,” says Mungui, as we meet just ahead of his new film’s London premiere. “It’s more a name for something completely unexpected. We never had such an important group of film-makers which were appreciated and talked about before. It was completely unlikely that such a group came from Romania.”
Do the new-wave practitioners know one another?
“Of course,” he says. “It’s a very small community; industry is a huge word for it. I’m very close to Corneliu Porumboiu but this is because life brought us together; we have children at the school. So I spend my mornings talking to him about cinema.”
Mungui’s remarkable body of work has attracted international audiences, yet he remains a frustrated talent at home, where there are too few independent and arthouse cinemas.
“I’m sorry I can’t screen the films on a larger scale at home,” says the softly spoken film-maker. “We simply don’t have the theatres. Every time for every film I need to put private screenings. This is the only way in which the film can reach a wider audience. Because as much as I like to think that these films are universal – and I hope that people can relate to them wherever they are – there’s a layer that addresses Romanian viewers.”
The small-town cronyism and compromises that jolly along Graduation will likely strike a chord among Irish viewers despite the film’s Cluj setting. Veteran actor Adrian Titieni stars as a surgeon whose teenage daughter Eliza has been offered a place in an English university, an opportunity that will allow her to escape the grubby corruption of her home city. Unhappily, on the day before her exams, Eliza is sexually assaulted. Her would-be rapist is unsuccessful but she is left too rattled to focus. Thus, her father must engage in quiet words and back-slapping to give his daughter a second chance.
“I wanted the film to come from the perspective of a character who is aware enough to understand that his actions are not okay from a moral point of view,” says Mungui. “It’s very difficult to be critical or judgemental of people in this situation. Of course, corruption is not good. But at the same time people are complex. And at home, this is a habit that comes from a period when people were counting on one another to help themselves against an authority who was not fair to them. It’s a kind of solidarity that dates to the Communist period.”
As ever, Mungui, a former journalist, found inspiration for this taut drama in newspaper headlines. His previous films include Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, in which students attempt to procure a backstreet abortion during the Ceausescu regime, and Beyond the Hills, which was based on a 2005 case concerning a 23-year-old novice nun who died during a botched “exorcism”. Similarly, Graduation took cues from two news stories: one concerning bystander effect when a woman was attacked at a bus stop in Bucharest, and another report about a father contacting teachers to get the highest grade for his daughter.
“I used the facts but reshaped them,” says the 48-year-old. “My preoccupation, since having children, is that it’s very difficult to decide what you tell them. What can be useful for them in society can be very different from the theoretical, wonderful moral discourse that you have with them when they are small. This isn’t polemical. I’m not concerned with the big corruption in society, it’s about how the individual is shaped by society. I hope that it makes people talk about their own lives. I’m holding up a mirror to reality, so that if you think about your own life in more detail, maybe you’ll realise that some of the things that you do are part of the system you didn’t like. Maybe you preserved corruption by not acting against it.”
Mungiu’s mirrored-reality signature style uses widescreen naturalistic settings, long takes, and settled master shots.
“I don’t tackle big spectacular material,” says Mungui. “I tackle things that are happening to the people next to me. So I have an individual perspective in the film: a main character and you know as much as they do. I don’t use violins as there is no music in real life. I never move the camera unless we are following something in particular. I don’t want to wave at you to point where you should look. Anyone could make an action scene if you have 30 cuts. But can you do it in one? Not that simple, I can tell you. Especially for the actors who have to stay truthful and precise for the length of the take.”
He laughs: “Are there cuts in life? No. you have to undergo every small miserable moment there’s no way out.”
Graduation opens March 31st
On the evolution of his style.
“I was always interested in cinema. I watched a lot of VHS mostly. I watched films from the Czech new wave, American cinema of the late ‘60s and ‘70s and Lucian Pintilie’s The Re-enactment many times