A modern-day morality play for a damaged world, “Graduation” is specific to Romania but applicable to everywhere, and it’s especially relevant to well-meaning fathers hoping to launch their children into the world with both honor and street smarts. Made in 2016, the movie lands in the Boston area with a dark splat this weekend, neatly timed between commencement exercises and Father’s Day.
It’s the latest from Cristian Mungiu, one of the leading lights of the New Romanian Cinema and the director of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007), by general critical consensus one of the finest films of the new millennium. “Graduation” is a more quietly damning drama; it doesn’t eviscerate you like the earlier movie but instead sticks with you like a nagging doubt.
The hero is Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a middle-aged doctor in the city of Cluj. He’s an educated man and a realist, having fought the day-in-day-out corruption of post-Ceausescu Romanian society until he has realized it’s just better to keep his head down. His hopes and ideals are placed solely in his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), a high school senior who has a scholarship to attend the University of Cambridge in England if she can get high enough marks on her final exams.
“Graduation” takes place in the days around those exams, as the daughter suffers an assault that stands to affect her academic performance — in any normal society (which doesn’t necessarily include ours), she’d get time to recuperate, not to mention extensive therapy — and the father has to decide whether or not he wants to help her. Or “help” her, assistance in a kleptocracy being a matter of finding the right person, trading the right favor, or greasing the right palm in exchange for a passing grade.
But he’s a good guy, Romeo is, and if the end result is that Eliza gets out of this hellhole of a country, isn’t that what counts? “Sometimes,” Romeo tells his daughter, “we need to fight using their weapons.” In Eliza’s eyes as he says this we see nothing less than the fall of man.
“Graduation” is full of nuanced portraits of the exhausted and the hopeful. Romeo’s wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), who seems to have long ago given up trying; his lover (and Eliza’s teacher) Sandra (Malina Manovici), who’s at the line dividing youth and enervation. The men all work hustles by necessity, like the police inspector (Vlad Ivanov) who advises the hero on the bureaucracy of cheating, or the state exam monitor (Gelu Colceag) who’s a burned-out idealist like Romeo, or a local power broker (Petre Ciubotaru) who needs a new liver if Romeo might be willing to bump him up the list. . .
They’re all fathers, so everyone understands, everyone gets it, at least until it’s time to confess to the state prosecutors. “Graduation” is at heart a suspense film, one that only happens to be made in the hyper-realistic style employed by Mungiu and his colleagues in the New Romanian Cinema. Long camera takes, natural sounds, naturalistic performances — it feels like nothing’s happening until you realize everything is, right before your eyes. There’s no soundtrack music other than the operas Romeo likes to listen to in his car. By the final scenes, they sound like mockery.
The aesthetic of these movies is almost as if Franz Kafka were alive and making documentaries, which sounds depressing as hell. But it’s also honest, and honesty may be the only meaningful rebellion left in a venal society. “Graduation” is not entirely without hope, if not for its flawed father then for the daughter poised to fly. But Mungiu is realistic (or cynical) enough to see the possibility of the virus being passed to the next generation, too.
The movie opens with a shot of one of Romeo’s neighbors digging a hole in the courtyard, invisible except for the flying dirt. “Graduation” says we each dig our own holes with effort and ingenuity until they’re far too deep to climb out of.
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu. Starring Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Malina Manovici. At Coolidge Corner. 128 minutes. R (some language). In Romanian with subtitles.