“Sometimes the result is all that matters.”
— Romeo, Graduation
Graduation is a bleak, bleak movie about a loving father making a series of profoundly idiotic choices on behalf of his teenage daughter. It is nominally about parenthood, sexual assault, and trauma. It is also about a culture of favor-trading in the Romanian educational bureaucracy.
Written and directed by Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, Graduation stars Adrian Titieni as Romeo, father of Eliza (Maria Dragus). The film’s inciting incident is this: Romeo makes the innocent mistake of dropping Eliza off to school on the opposite side of a construction site, and she is violently assaulted on her way across the site.
At this point, Graduation pulls off something of a feint. What seems like a setup for a character-based crime procedural about the nature of sexual assault and post-traumatic stress becomes something else. Because what Graduation is most interested in is a scholarship. Eliza’s scholarship, to Cambridge, to be exact.
Eliza is a brilliant student, and has thus received an incredible opportunity: the chance to leave her tiny city in Romania to study in an esteemed university in England. It’s all her parents – her father in particular – could ever want for her. He’s passionately invested in giving his daughter a better life than he and his wife-in-name-only have had. The only catch is – Eliza must average a 9 out of 10 on all of her final exams, which begin the day after her assault. Naturally, the assault has thrown her, and (possibly) because of this one violent, unfortunate incident, she doesn’t do quite as well as necessary on her first exam.
The rest of the film centers on Romeo trying desperately to finagle and scheme and deal under the table, all in service of keeping Eliza’s grades just high enough to qualify for the scholarship. He trades medical favors – he’s a respected doctor – even going so far as to push a patient in need of a liver transplant to the front of the list in return for an education official’s cashing in of a favor owed to him by two members of the final exam grading board. Romeo, who by all accounts has not led a criminal lifestyle, falls into serious illegality for the first time in an effort to get his beloved child the hell out of Cluj, Romania. When confronted with his daughter’s discomfort regarding these extralegal activities, he sits her down, looks her in the eyes, and says, “life has its winners and losers. We want you to be a winner.”
Graduation is not an easy film to review due to its almost aggressive naturalism; Mungiu is supernatural in his construction of a formless film, a movie during which at no point is one especially aware that it is a film they are experiencing. He never calls attention to his use of the camera, and never, ever, lets his actors’ performances get a smidge too “big.” It feels eerily and depressingly real; its moral seems to be that bad things will necessarily happen to people who try too hard. It’s tough, therefore, to write of the film Graduation as a film, as it stands apart even from the Berlin School of realism as almost its own art form.
That is to say, it is impossible to criticize Graduation on the basis of its aesthetic form, as it is nearly perfect if all Mungiu wanted was to represent a certain realism. It’s a story told on its own terms, and it feels wrong to pick apart the story beats for criticism as nothing that happens here is implausible or dramatically ineffective. Yet – I’m reluctant to heap praise on it.
If there’s a problem with Graduation, it’s this: Mungiu chose a particular story to tell in his naturalist way, and it was the story of a well-off middle aged man desperately trying to afford his daughter an amazing privilege. And while it’s nice – invaluable, really – to bring low-stakes (or, more accurately, low-scale) stories to the silver screen, I struggle to see why this one in particular needed to be told. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the storytelling here, it’s the telling of the story in the first place that, in my view, needs some level of contextualization.