“I have this feeling someone is following me” are words spoken by Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a Romanian doctor, in Cristian Mungiu’s disturbing new film, “Graduation.” Because Romeo lives in a society still laden with more than a trace of totalitarianism, his words inevitably recall that old joke: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t following you.
In present-day Romania, paranoia is in fact the norm, even as it was in the days of the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Romeo and his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), fled their country years ago and returned from exile in 1991, when hopes briefly flourished for a better life following the post-Communist thaw. The marriage, however, has not survived well. They barely speak, Magda seems stricken with anger, and Romeo has a mistress (Malina Manovici), a schoolteacher in the same school where their daughter and only child, Eliza (Maria Dragus), is a senior.
One afternoon on her way to school, Eliza is set upon by a would-be rapist and, in fending off this attack by an unknown assailant, shatters her wrist. For most of the film’s protagonists, this event sets in motion an extensive linkage of moral conflicts. Because Eliza is about to take an exam that, if she passes, will earn her a scholarship to a British university, the ramifications of the traumatizing attack are potentially dire. It is not even clear for a while if the authorities will allow her to take the exam, since they suspect the heavy cast on her wrist could possibly conceal a cheat sheet.
Eliza represents for her parents the hope for a better life lived apart from Romania’s bleakness and corruptions, and so, when Eliza’s test results prove deficient, Romeo attempts to fix the scores by pulling in an old police friend (the great Vlad Ivanov), a deputy mayor (Petre Ciubotaru) who needs a liver transplant, and an exam board official (Gelu Colceag) who owes the politician a favor.
Mungiu portrays a community in which one’s moral compass is constantly being spun by the subtle, and not-so-subtle, depredations of the ruling authorities. Romeo lives a life of privilege compared to most, but his existence is nevertheless portrayed as suffocatingly drab. Although he cannot account for the random acts of mayhem that he himself experiences in the course of the film, such as the rock that shatters his apartment window or, later on, the bashing of his parked car, these provocations are likely the result of class resentments. But Romeo does not indulge whatever privilege he enjoys; he knows that, for him, there is nothing in his homeland to brighten his days. This is why he wants Eliza to flee.
And yet we can’t entirely sympathize with Romeo, since it’s clear his concerns for Eliza’s well-being have more to do with her academic success than with her emotional recovery from trauma. He wants the best for her, but he doesn’t recognize that she’s ambivalent about his machinations and even about leaving Romania. (She has a boyfriend Romeo does not approve of.) Romeo sees Eliza not so much as his daughter as a projection of his own desire to escape.
Mungiu, who for his work on this film tied with another director for the best director award at Cannes, is highly adept at showing how, in this world, the personal and the political are inseparable. (This was especially true in his 2007 masterpiece “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”) But he doesn’t portray people in stark shades of black and white. No matter how lowdown the characters in this film behave, we recognize that, for them, they are only doing what is necessary to ensure a better life. They have convinced themselves that they can do the right thing only by doing the wrong thing.
The shape-shifty morality on view in “Graduation” is consistent with the sinuous, darting way in which the film is shot. I’m not usually a fan of this herky-jerky stylistic approach, and there are times in this movie when I longed for the camera to settle down. Mungiu may not trust his actors enough to simply let them play out a rock-steady scene, but he needn’t have worried. Despite all the visual pirouettes, they come through anyway.
What also comes through is a quietly scathing portrait of a society in which every move, overtly or covertly, is monitored. To Mungiu’s credit, he makes it clear that, although the film is set in Romania, its moral quandaries could be taking place anywhere. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some language.)