Film review | The Graduation: Back-scratching ourselves to death

The Graduation is an achingly realistic parable about life under a creaking and corrupt society, where ethical compromise appears to be the only recourse to get anything resolved • 4/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
1 May 2017, 11:44am
Bad education: Adrian Titieni and Maria Dragus in The Graduation – a subtle but cutting dissection of a society rife with corruption
Bad education: Adrian Titieni and Maria Dragus in The Graduation – a subtle but cutting dissection of a society rife with corruption
Superstar Romanian director Cristian Mungiu makes a triumphant return to the big screen following his defining – and Palme d’Or-winning – abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days with The Graduation, a searing critique of corruption-rife Romanian society wrapped up in a tale of a father trying to do good by his daughter.

After 18-year-old student Eliza (Maria Drăguș) is sexually assaulted in the run up to an important exam, her fragile psychological estate runs the risk of losing her a prestigious scholarship for a UK university – which had previously been easily within reach, much to the delight of her father, the middle-aged doctor Romeo (Adrian Titieni). In fact, while Eliza begins to understandably see the scholarship as something of a secondary concern – and her mother, the wilting Magda (Lia Bugnar), understands her need to find psychological closure after the attack – Romeo will stop at nothing, including engaging in high-level corruption, to secure a high-enough grade for his daughter. 

Because for Romeo, this is more than just an exam. It signifies the possibility for his kin to reap something good out of the ashes of his generation’s dreams.

Fractured:  Titieni and Lia Bugnar
Fractured: Titieni and Lia Bugnar
The film opens with a stone shattering a living room window, and an only slightly ruffled family questioning who it could have been before moving on with their lives. The living room looks pretty enough, and the family is certainly self-aware and cultivated – Romeo listens to classical music while driving to his mistress, the single mother Sandra (Mălina Manovici), in between his doctor’s rounds – but the external world is a grey and often squalid trudge – a construction zone whose completion is never quite in sight.

This tightly framed and searingly focused contrast of aspiration vs harsh reality is what gives The Graduation its brilliantly realised (and thoroughly pessimistic) downward spiral. The bleached out colour schemes aid  Mungiu in creating a world where hope lies out of reach... although significantly, making Eliza a radiant and fresh-faced blonde (despite her glow taking a few knocks after what happens) is a significant shift. 

The film does in fact offer a light at the end of the tunnel, though in some ways its also a challenge and a prayer: please, for the love of god, Romanian kids: do your best to make the country better.

The Graduation is an achingly realistic parable about life under a creaking and corrupt society, where ethical compromise appears to be the only recourse to get anything resolved. Cristian Mungiu’s film does suggest a glimmer of hope for the new generation, but the presented evidence nudges us to conclude that the contrary would make a likelier outcome. Despite its grim overtures, it still makes for a compelling and humane time at the movies.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...