There are too many people who, at least anecdotally, dislike going to see movies with subtitles. Generally speaking, this is a great loss. But, today we get specific, one foreign language movie absolutely worth seeing – Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation.”
The film is a part of this year’s New York Film Festival (this is not his first time at the fest either), and while it deals with the troubles of one Romanian family, it also shows that humanity as a whole is more alike than not, that we all have the same fears, hopes, and desires. It is a touching movie offering up the distress of one father as he negotiates issues within his family.
At the center of everything here is Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a Romanian doctor who, along with his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), has done his best to avoid the rampant corruption in his country. This all begins to change though when their daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), is assaulted near her school on the eve of finals.
Romeo feels responsibility for Eliza’s have been assaulted because he dropped her off a short walk from the school as opposed to at it so that he could go off and see his mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici). Beyond that, Eliza has been accepted, with a scholarship, to a university in England, but that scholarship is dependent on her performance during these exams.
The audience watches as Romeo struggles with his principles and his decades-long refusal take or offer bribes. A couple of phone calls to move someone higher on the liver transplant list can get his daughter graded more leniently on her exams. It would be a returning of her marks to what they would have been had she not been assaulted. It is a straightening of a crooked road, not an out-and-out falsehood. Or is it?
Mungiu’s film is full of long takes with a number of scenes seeming to take place each in a single camera shot. The technique offers both a more lethargic pace to the story and more of a naturalistic feel – these are events the audience is watching unfold, and the uncertainty of how to proceed is visible on the faces of Romeo, Magda, Eliza, and everyone else.
One certainty “Graduation” does offer, is that in its estimation, Romania has a set of serious problems. It is a country where women seem to regularly be assaulted, where passers-by watch and do nothing, where rocks are thrown through windows, the city is falling down, and the only way anything gets done is with an under the table exchange of money or favors.
While that view may not be universal, the questions Romeo asks himself are – could he have prevented this assault? Should he now compromise his principles to help his daughter, and if he does will she benefit as she’ll be able to attend school in England or will she become corrupted herself? How far does one go to protect their family and what exactly does “protecting” them even mean?
As Romeo wrestles with these issues and his marriage crumbles and his daughter grows up and he faces losing everything he’s ever worked for, we watch in ever-building distress. What do you do when there is no right answer, when every choice you have is wrong?
The sense one gets watching “Graduation” is that maybe, just maybe, there is a right thing to do… not that the film ever actually offers what that course might be. The choice is elusive, but feels like it exists just off screen somewhere. Multiple times in the film things take place just below, or just outside, of the camera shot. They are right in front of us, but hidden, a truth that is right there that we will never see.
Every piece of “Graduation” works in concert with every other one. The film paints a detailed picture of one small corner of one country and in that picture offers a much larger reflection about the choices we all make, no matter where we live.
Without delving into how things work out for anyone in the “Graduation,” it must be noted that Mungiu offers a conclusion which, simply put, feels like the right one. Like every other moment in the movie, it is powerful, emotional, and will cause you to stop and question your own choices as you move through life.
The film is being distributed in the U.S. by Sundance Selects. Look for it.
photo credit: Sundance Selects