***½ (out of ****)
The man just wants what’s best for his daughter. The crux of Graduation is as simple as that, but this is not a movie about simple desires for what’s right. The morality of the characters in writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s film is relative to each one of them, a troubling fact that haunts our protagonist in every step he takes toward what he believes to be – and what others reassure him is – true justice. This is not a revenge thriller, although one can sense vaguely the pieces for such a genre effort somewhere beneath the quiet, sad surface of Mungiu’s screenplay. It’s a morality tale, built from melodramatic pieces but more reliant on these characters than on the situation in which they find themselves.
None of these characters is simple, nor do any of them, thankfully, tend toward archetypes of the usual morality tale. Our protagonist is Romeo (Adrian Titieni), an unassuming doctor of 49 whose cosseted existence is upended by the assault of his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) on the eve of an examination that will gain the young woman entry to a prestigious university of her choosing. The assault was sexual in nature, though the strongly implied impotence of the attacker only left her with a fractured wrist (of her writing hand, no less), a slight concussion, and night terrors that last for weeks.
Romeo’s (and, by extension, Eliza’s) home life is shambles, with a chronically ill and exhausted wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), on whom he is cheating with Sandra (Malina Manovici), an official at Eliza’s high school, and a mother (played by Alexandra Davidescu) whose frailty needs constant attention. The assault sparks Romeo into the action of looking for some system of assistance from the higher-ups in the examination committee, including its president (Gelu Colceag), and in the police department, including his old friend the Chief Inspector (Vlad Ivanov).
The favors, as they always do, start out small. The Chief Inspector has a friend in one of Romeo’s patients, a man on the list for liver donors, who helped a pregnant wife get back onto the exam committee. Money is exchanged despite the insistences on both sides that it shouldn’t be issue, and a snowball effect of minimal, if notable, corruption begins. This is, ultimately, a tragic tale, if not in the Shakespearean sense, and Mungiu’s tone is primarily funereal. It isn’t one-note, though, which means that the screenplay and the actors are allowed some personality.
Granted, these are still characters in a state between normality and dealing with trauma, so the personality is limited to semi-normal conversation and some very light humor. Titieni is exceptional as a man beyond his depth in a political infrastructure that no one, even the Chief Inspector of the police, bothers to deny is corrupt. Dragus conveys the trauma of her character’s present very well, especially in a medium shot of father and daughter discussing their limited options. Manovici offers a complex portrayal of the “other woman” that considers her position in a relationship that seems more open than the one between Romeo and his wife.
We get a similarly complex portrait of a small town run on closed-door favors through this self-contained story of the aftermath of trauma. Graduation makes no concessions for its characters’ moral fortitude in this tale of the blacks, whites, and greys of such matters, but it is remarkably compassionate toward them. The final moments, steeped in ambiguity and ending on just the right note, are a considerable achievement on the film’s behalf: They answer no questions for any of these characters because it knows those answers are never easy to give. That, then, is reflective of the film’s protagonist: He is searching for what is right, and he chooses the wrong path.
(Review by Joel Copling)