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.
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The talk of the Cannes Film Festival, where it received as rapturous a critical response as any film is likely to get (no less than Amy Taubin said it was one of her ten favorite films of all-time on Film Comment’s festival podcast), Toni Erdmann is finally making its run through the fall festival circuit, and here in Vancouver it capped my first day at the festival. And what is surely a great surprise, it’s a film that lives up to the hype. A nearly three-hour screwball comedy about a father, a daughter, and international capitalism, it’s the best film made about parenthood since Yasujiro Ozu died, and surely the funniest German film ever made. Peter Simonischek plays the father, a large, gregarious and goofy older man, a music teacher with a penchant for pranks of the false teeth and bad wig variety. His daughter, played by Sandra Hüller, is a high-ranking consultant working in Bucharest to help a corporation outsource its workforce. She’s too busy to notice how miserable she is, but after a perfunctory visit home, dad drops in on her life unannounced, generally being foolish and weird and embarrassing. At the halfway point she sends him home, only for him to return in disguise as Toni Erdmann, a life coach who insinuates himself among her friends at parties and work functions. The film is a symphony of double takes, as every character, great and small, is stunned by Toni’s oddity, his eyes twinkling mischievously whenever someone plays along with his games. The final third of the film escalates, in classic screwball style, through a masterful series of set-pieces, as hilarious as they are devastating. It’s difficult to describe the achievement of this film to someone who hasn’t seen it, the way it impossibly negotiates the simultaneous absurdity and despair of life, the way it captures the pride we have in our children and our overwhelming sorrow when they’re in pain. Watching it at VIFF, in a 1,000 seat auditorium, feeling the entire vast room captivated and rapturous with every twist and shock and small poignancy, is one of the great movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.