If the path to hell is paved with good intentions, in the Romania examined in director Cristian Mungiu‘s “Graduation,” the path to society-wide corruption is paved by fatherly love.
The strong reception that the film has garnered could lead to a two-peat for Mungiu, the first Romanian director to win the Palme d’Or for his 2007 film “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days.”
It would be for good reason, too, because the film is superb. Once again, Mungiu starts with a basic premise — a father trying to help his daughter do well on her end of high school exams — and pries extraordinary levels of nuance and verve out of every little step toward fulfilling that goal.
The father is Romeo (Adrian Titieni,) a portly middle-aged doctor living in the dowdy town of Cluj. Romeo has all the trappings of a 50ish man — a good title, a wife and a mistress, and like all middle-class men, he wants his child to move a higher class. That child is daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), and things are going according to plan until she is attacked right before her big week of exams.
The assault (which includes an attempted rape) understandably frazzles the 18-year-old, to the extent that it might affect her grades on the exams. But if she doesn’t get the grades, she doesn’t get the scholarship to Oxford, and if she doesn’t get that, then she doesn’t leave Romania, and all 18 years of preparation will have been for naught.
Something has to be done, and something is. A favor, nothing more. Romeo just needs to move local official Bulia (Rares Andrici) up the list to get a kidney transplant, and then Bulia leans on the school’s dean, and boom, presto, the marks are changed. Of course, it doesn’t go exactly as planned, and more favors need to be called in when things go awry. And worse, it means letting Eliza in on it, and wasn’t the whole point to get her out of the corrupt system?
In the hands of any other director, the film might play out as a thriller. There are powerful men, favors called, a police investigation, a cover-up — the works. And indeed, “Graduation” is something of a thriller, but of the moral variety.
Each step, each new wrinkle in the plan, forces Romeo to confront the fact that he’s not The Last Honest Man he sees himself as. That the corrupt Romania he’s trying so hard to spare his daughter from is the country of his own making.