Graduation may be a film that leaves one somewhat emotionally cold – director Christian Mungiu’s previous feature, Beyond the Hills, was practically arctic – but it’s one hell of an effective and creeping morality tale, that will grip you tightly as you slide slowly down into the rabbit hole of corruption.
The inciting incident in Graduation is an assault on Eliza (Maria Dragus), a young girl who is in the middle of sitting a number of tests that will play heavily into her future. Her father, Dr Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), is keenly following her progress at school and is adamant that she will go to the UK following her graduation. He believes that by travelling to study in the UK she will experience a better quality of life than she can get in Romania, and that he and his wife can offer her. Following her assault though, her ability to get the high scores needed to study abroad are put in jeopardy and Aldea is left struggling to figure out how he can still make this dream happen.
Graduation begins with an object flying through the window of the Aldea family home – it’s never entirely clear why within the story this, or a similar later event, occur – and it’s a clear portent of the way in which the fragile exterior of the Aldea family’s life will be shattered. This deconstruction of their life and Aldea’s respected position doesn’t happen with a loud and sudden smash though, but with hairline fractures slowly weakening the integrity of the doctor and the strength of his family.
With Graduation, Mungiu takes a slow and steady approach – with handheld camerawork and a completely understated approach to the look of the film – and the effect of this is extraordinary. We see Aldea slowly but surely corrupted, as one micro-decision after another builds to greater corruption and a far more unhealthy future. The allegorical implications of this narrative – it’s a very thinly veiled, damning portrait of the current Romanian government and a culture based on bribery and corruption – come through clearly, but they are impressively explored using the frame of this utterly relatable experience of a doctor.
The film was co-produced by the Dardennes, who were also in Cannes with their new film The Unknown Girl, and it’s unsurprising to see their names appearing in the credits. This is a quietly compelling, often gripping social realist, morality play of the highest order. Graduation was the second superb film to play in Cannes in competition this year from directors associated with the Romanian New Wave, and both more than stood up to the tough competition here. Romanian filmmaking culture is something truly special right now and, as evidenced here, any new film that comes out of this vital and thriving area is not to be missed.