A rock flies through the window of a well-furnished middle class apartment. Looking in bewilderment at the occurrence is Romeo Aldea, a doctor in a small Romanian city. Who would do such a thing? There is no time to fix the window; his teenaged daughter Eliza has an important exam this morning. It could determine whether she can attend university in the UK, or remain stuck in the Romanian backwater.
Aldea says he’ll take Eliza to the school, but drops her off nearby instead. He’s late for a meeting with his mistress, and speeds off. His dalliance is interrupted: Eliza never made it to school. Someone sexually assaulted her, and she is in the hospital.
So begins Graduation, the new film from Cristian Mungiu, who rose quickly to fame when his sophomore effort, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, won the 2007 Palme d’Or. Who threw the rock that breaks the window? Who assaulted Eliza? Will she be able to transcend her trauma and complete her exams? More disturbing is this question: Was she even assaulted in the first place? An American film would concern itself exclusively with answering these questions, and probably turn into a complex procedural.
Okay, let me answer for you. Who threw the rock? The children from The White Ribbon. Who assaulted Eliza? The same people videotaping Juliette Binoche’s family in Caché. Will Eliza pass her exams? Well, is Schrödinger’s cat alive or dead? You see, the point of Mungiu’s film isn’t to solve these questions, but rather to illustrate how in modern Romania, two-plus decades after the fall of communism, asking them is wholly beside the point.
Graduation paints a picture—vividly, wrenchingly—of a world where meritocracy doesn’t exist. Connections and favours grease all the wheels. The policeman helping Aldea’s case has an acquaintance on the exam board, Bulai. Bulai needs a new liver, and even though Aldea’s help in that regard isn’t required, it may, uh, reduce the friction regarding Eliza.
It goes deeper. Bulai knows Serban, the exam board chief. Serban’s wife was fired from the town hall while she was pregnant, and Bulai got her job back. When Aldea finally speaks with Serban, the board chief makes clear that he’s only bumping her grade to help her, because ‘she shouldn’t pay just because we can’t handle our criminals. Look around you,’ he says, indicating his house. ‘I earned all this honestly. I don’t do such things.’ ‘I believe you,’ Aldea responds. ‘I don’t do such things.’ Yet here they are. Doing such things. Mungiu suggests that this web of contacts and patronage is woven throughout the fabric of Romanian society.
Cristian Mungiu is an incredibly gifted scenarist, a talent of Kieslowskian levels. Almost every single scene demonstrates, then deepens, his theme clearly, without clobbering it over our heads. But Mungiu’s dramatisations never get repetitious. By the end of Graduation, he has etched so complete and dire a portrait of modern Romania, the resignation is palpable. The country is one giant Venus fly trap, from which you can only escape if the botanist happens to owe you something.
If marvelling at Graduation’s dramatic construction isn’t enough, equally noteworthy is Mungiu’s skill for composition. He and his cinematographer, Tudor Panduru, employ the handheld shaky-cam popular nowadays, and especially prevalent in the Romanian New Wave. Despite this, the arrangement of actors and elements in nearly every shot is impeccable. All of the compositions are perfect and precise without ever seeming arranged. To watch Graduation is to realise how shambolic other recent films are in their thematic structure and visual arrangement.
The Romanian New Wave is still in full force, if there was any doubt. Graduation is scheduled for limited release in the US in February, March in the UK. It is almost surely a shoo-in for my ‘Best of 2017′ list. Here is one of the new year’s best films.