‘Everyone cheats in their final exam.’
Winner of the best director award at last year’s Cannes festival, Cristian Mungiu explores a number perplexing decisions in this drama of family relationships, moral dilemmas and corruption.
Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) lives in Cluj, a Transylvanian mountain town, with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) and their daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus). Exams are approaching and Eliza needs to attain high grades in all of her subjects, including the difficult Romanian language paper; if she achieves this she will graduate from her school and gain a scholarship in psychology at Cambridge University. This shouldn’t be a problem – she is very bright – but it would mean her leaving her friends at home, in particular Marius (Rares Andrici). One morning, as she approaches her school, she is attacked and violated, left with a fractured wrist after defending herself against her assailant. This of course leads to psychological issues as well as physical pain and it is unlikely that she will be able to complete her exams as she is struggling to write. Romeo is determined to give the best opportunities for Eliza and so he devises a plan to help her chances. One of his patients, Vice-Mayor Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), who is on the waiting list for a liver transplant, has his own suggestions via one of his associates who, given a prescribed alteration of one of Eliza’s examination papers will guarantee a good score. But will Eliza abide by her father’s plans or will she instead decide to stay in Cluj? With the police investigating her attack, which seem to be leading to further investigations, Romeo has to manage his work, his wife, his daughter, his lover and the investigators who seem to be uncovering elements of well-intentioned corruption.
Setting its scenario as a combination of crime drama and an exploration of generational issues, ambition and corruption, Graduation is, in many ways, a film about rubble and relationships. It opens with a long shot of the digging of rubble on a building site which links to a stone that is hurled through the window of the family home and, later, at Romeo’s car, but also the location of the attack on Eliza and its relation to the police investigation and CCTV camera footage. This sets the backdrop for the film’s main themes: the moral decisions that people take, for whatever reason, and the relationships between parents and children. This is a society where people are willing to help each other if they possibly can. Romeo desires to achieve what he perceives to be his daughter’s best prospects – a chance to study at a prestigious university abroad, hence opening up opportunities that he never had – which may now not come to fruition following her horrific assault. It’s not that she isn’t bright enough – she would have passed the exams easily, but now needs extra time to complete the papers because of her injury – but the prospect of her not achieving this goal leads him to consider strong measures. We know that Romeo isn’t naturally corrupt – he refuses to take a payment for the liver transplant operation – but he’s absolutely determined to see his daughter succeed. Of course, the reason he has taken this route is because of the absurdity of an educational system that would not allow her to sit an exam because of her plaster cast, for fear that she could write answers on it. Having set up a convoluted means for her to cheat, Romeo tries to supply her ‘a precaution for tomorrow’s exam’ by indicating that, ‘Sometimes in life it’s the result that counts’, but Eliza is not convinced. She recognises how important her future is to him – and Cambridge isn’t necessarily so important to her. When she suspects his affair with the school English teacher and finds him at her house, she demands that he tell her mother about it or she will refuse to sit the exam. But Magda already knew about the affair. She has been living a lie to protect her daughter’s perception of the family unit, waiting for Eliza to leave home, so that she can start a new life. So she, too, has a vested interest in this sordid scheme. Throughout, the film explores the reasons why these dilemmas come about and how the decisions the characters make affect themselves and others. Of course, the interactions between all parties become increasingly complex and convoluted, yet no one is perceived to be a villain, aside from the attacker.
Included as an extra on the DVD is an interview with Cristian Mungiu where he explains the themes behind the film and its creation, determined to emphasise that even though its a local film, it’s ‘not just about corruption in Romania’, but rather about compromises and that it ‘speaks about human nature, about parenting.’ Graduation is a subtle and yet gripping family drama that raises more questions than it answers.