Who’s to blame for a corrupt system? The people who make the deals, do the favors, grease the palms and make the threats, or the system itself, which drives people to commit such acts just to stay afloat? In the darkly satirical “Graduation,” writer-director Cristian Mungiu clearly has his own ideas on the subject, yet he exercises a light enough touch to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions.
That’s to be expected: after all, Mungiu gave us the modern classic “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a movie about abortion that’s probably the only film to be simultaneously embraced by pro-choice and anti-abortion activists, with both sides of the issue claiming that the film supported their point of view.
With “Graduation,” the filmmaker occasionally slips into allowing his characters to talk about what the movie is about, but for the most part, it’s a wonderfully slow unraveling of one man’s precisely-crafted world as it begins to spin out of his control, no matter how hard he tries to fix everything around him. And that’s not “fix” as a synonym for “repair,” either.
Physician Romeo (Adrian Titieni) has high hopes that his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus, “The White Ribbon”) will do well on her final exams; she’s a bright girl with good grades and, more importantly for Romeo, she has a scholarship to study psychology in Cambridge, which means she can get the heck out of Romania. Romeo returned to his homeland with wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) after the overthrow of Ceausescu, but even with the dictatorship toppled, the country remained choked by bureaucracy and corruption.
Magda has chosen to play by the rules, leading to a dead-end job in a library, while Romeo decided to work the system. Now he’s a successful doctor, complete with tucked-away mistress Sandra (Malina Manovici), a teacher at Eliza’s school. But Romeo has enemies — over the course of the film, mystery vandals throw a rock through his window and damage his car — and his plans for Eliza go awry when she’s assaulted across the street from her school.
Naturally, she’s distraught, which affects her performance on the all-important exams. Getting her scores adjusted to where they need to be involves asking a favor of all-around fixer Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), who happens to be having health troubles of his own. (Romeo turns down Bulai’s pre-surgery envelope of cash, leading the astonished bureaucrat to marvel, “Surely you don’t live on your salary!”)
Between the adjustment of Eliza’s tests, the police investigation of her attack, and new demands from the long-suffering Sandra, Romeo finds himself having to spin more and more plates, with further complications arising from investigators who want to interrogate Bulai, surgery or no.
Mungiu makes movies in a way that they don’t seem to teach in American film schools: he eschews music almost entirely, his takes run long enough that viewers are forced to take in the frame’s details and figure out which are important, and his flatly matter-of-fact conversations almost never include obvious exposition, yet it’s immediately clear who everyone is and what they’re after. (The great, non-flashy camerawork is by Tudor Vladimir Panduru.) Mungiu’s trust in the audience’s capacity to glean meaning is exciting to watch, particularly to those on a steady diet of cookie-cutter blockbusters where everything is pitched to the back row.
The performances are invaluable, of course, in providing quick snapshots of these characters; Titieni hides Romeo’s arrogance behind a veneer of polite humility, and his corruption under the guise of pragmatism. Ciubotaro is hilarious as the one person in “Graduation” who seems willing to talk about why people are doing what they’re doing (rather than couching it in euphemism or veiled threats), and Bugnar very effectively communicates a lifetime of regret and recrimination into every languid draw on her ever-present cigarettes.
If “Graduation” occasionally falls short of Mungiu’s very best work — a very high bar — it’s because of a few lines of dialogue that hammer home the film’s understated ideas about power and corruption. These lapses ultimately matter fairly little next to the powerful storytelling and acting on display; one of this generation’s most interesting filmmakers still has plenty to say and an impressive dexterity at saying it.