There is a seemingly inconsequential moment roughly a quarter into Graduation where the protagonist, Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), enters the office of his friend, the police inspector (Vlad Ivanov), and sees two bowls filled with marbles. The inspector explains with no small degree of weary acceptance that he uses them to symbolize two time-based demarcators and to reflect on his current state of affairs. The first represents the amount of days he has lived, and the second is for the amount of days before he can retire at 65, something he quickly states could change based on a revision in Romania’s laws.
This moment of interaction, perhaps the least plot-related moment in an otherwise intensely focused movie, is a kind of key to Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation. The Romanian director burst out into the world cinema stage with his 2007 Palme d’Or winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a singularly harrowing and powerful movie about a woman’s struggle to obtain an illegal abortion for her friend in 1987 Romania. In many ways, Graduation functions as an elaboration of that film’s immensely compressed dealings with the nature of bureaucracies and corruption–something, it should be noted, that forms a primary concern for various filmmakers in the Romanian New Wave.
Here, the catalyst is something that appears comparatively small, but has extraordinarily outsized consequences: Romeo’s daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), an ace high-school student with pending scholarships to several UK universities, is assaulted outside of her school the day before her crucial final examinations begin. Desperate to secure a better future for his daughter and to prevent her continued stay in the country he sees as a failed, corrupt world, he slowly but inexorably attempts to game the system. This first manifests itself in little things (persuading an administrator to allow her to take the first exam despite her unauthorized wrist cast) but moves to more risky areas, as he tries to have the exams graded by less than partial adjudicators.
Graduation is typified by the consequences of these decisions, and expands its gaze towards how these decisions bubble up from the inherently corrupt culture of Romania. Romeo juggles this primary concern with multiple other problems, including a strained relationship with his wife, dismay over his discovery of Eliza’s prior loss of virginity, a not-so-secret lover (Malina Manovici), and ongoing investigations, both into the assault and attempted rape and into charges of corruption levied against some of Romeo’s associates.
In the dense mix of troubles, it is still somewhat odd to see that the inciting incident is discussed almost solely in terms of the repercussions that emanate from it. It speaks to a certain inhumanity that arises throughout the film, a focus on the bureaucratic nightmare that neglects the personal turmoil, which is nevertheless ably performed by all and anchored by Titieni’s weary and increasingly crushed performance. But despite this, and a certain loosening of Mungiu’s austere, compassionate filmmaking, there is still no shortage of tension in his extended conversations, in the simple but effective two-shot tableaus that form most of the interactions in Graduation. It is not for nothing that the small scenes of contemplation, where the viewer stews alongside Romeo in his troubles, hit just as hard as the intense negotiations. Mungiu believes in his characters and their problems, even if it isn’t continually apparent, and that propels Graduation to its inevitable yet still striking conclusion.