Mark Reviews Movies

Graduation (2017)


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Cast: Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Lia Bugnar, Malina Manovici, Rares Andrici, Vlad Ivanov

MPAA Rating: R (for some language)

Running Time: 2:08

Release Date: 4/7/17 (limited); 4/21/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 20, 2017

It is generally acknowledged that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The lesson of Graduation is that the possession of even just enough power will corrupt just enough. The overwhelming majority of people in this world will never have to worry about the corrupting influence of absolute power. Just enough power, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.

The film is set in a place where just about everyone has just enough power. There are spheres of corruption—within the education system, within law enforcement, within the arena of health care, within local politics—that seem relatively innocent. This is such a tightknit community, though, that it's inevitable those spheres will overlap. Look at the bigger picture of this community, with its overlapping spheres of power and corruption, and it must look as if the entire place has been corrupted. Isn't that, in its own way, a form of absolute corruption?

People offer favors here. They don't ask for money, although the recipients of those favors sometimes give it. An envelope of cash passes from one man's hand to another's in one scene here, even though the man on the receiving end specifically said no money was to be involved in this transaction. The man with the cash feels that it's the right thing—the polite thing—to do under these circumstances. He did the other man a favor, but it's miniscule in comparison to the favor the other man is doing for him. Fair transactions are necessary, but there's also the thought that these are people who fear the idea of being in debt to someone else.

A lot is left unsaid in the world of writer/director Cristian Mungiu's film, where deals are made without the specific words being spoken, where the declaration that someone is owed a favor is implied by crossing out a few words on a document, and where everyone is for sale for a fairly cheap price. That includes even the decent people within this community, of whom there are few. It has become nearly impossible to succeed or even to survive in this place without asking for or handing out a favor or two.

One such person is Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a surgeon at the local hospital in an unnamed town in Romania. Romeo knows of the widespread corruption here, but he is adamant that he has never needed to participate in the shady dealings of his fellow citizens, because he is a good man, a skilled surgeon, a decent husband, and a loving father.

His daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from secondary school and has two scholarships from prestigious universities in the United Kingdom. If Romeo has anything to do with it, she will be the first of his family to choose what she wants to do with her life without needing a favor or being stifled by refusing to give or take them. To get those scholarships, all Eliza has to do is achieve a certain average score on a trio of exams.

On her way to school one morning, Eliza is assaulted—an attempted rape. Her wrist is sprained, meaning that she has difficulty writing, and she is emotionally and psychologically distraught from the experience, leaving her distracted about and unsure of the upcoming tests. Romeo, as decent and incorruptible as he has been throughout his life, now has to look for unethical and/or illegal ways to guarantee that his daughter can escape this place.

Romeo's high moral standing and standards are—not to put too fine a point on it—a lie. This observation isn't just the notion that a man who says he is incorruptible wouldn't participate in corruption. That's a key part of it, of course, but no, Romeo has been cheating on his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) with Sandra (Malina Manovici), a former patient of his. His rush for a morning tryst with Sandra is, to an extent, part of the reason that Eliza found herself walking through the empty construction site where she was assaulted in the first place.

That must be part of his drive to ensure Eliza's success in the exams, which leads him through a chain of connections—from a cop working on Eliza's case to a man of some influence in the community, who knows a guy who knows someone who works on the examination board, whose wife the guy had once helped in keeping a political position. There's a web of influence here that seems to extend through the whole town.

Mungiu uses that idea, not only for plot, but also as a metaphor the individual. Romeo begins with an easy task—to tell his daughter to cross out a few words on her test, to let the exams board know that she's owed the favor of a great score. This plan, though, now includes Eliza. It includes Magda, who doesn't want her daughter to start off her life this way (Romeo insists that, in special cases, only the results matter, not the means of obtaining them). It spreads to others, and it means that Romeo now has favors of his own to uphold.

What's fascinating is not just the spreading of this one act. It's also in how Mungiu gradually picks apart the upright façade that Romeo has held for decades. He has been lying to his mother (Alexandra Davidescu) about her health, believing that, since there's nothing that can be done for her medically, there's no reason to upset her. He has been leading on Sandra without realizing it. The affair reveals other layers of deception later on, when Romeo learns that Eliza might be smarter than he realizes and through Magda's response to her daughter's newfound knowledge.

At first, Mungiu appears to be assembling a simple morality tale—about a man who loses himself by making a wrong decision for the right reason. That element of the story is engrossing enough, but with the addition of every new complication and the revelation of each old lie, Graduation reaches deeper. The lies might be the only thing keeping these characters together. What appears to be hypocrisy might simply be living a normal life. Mungiu isn't cynical about these observations. He's pragmatic about humanity's inherent corruptibility and, in the end, perhaps a little optimistic about our ability to change that.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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