With his latest film, Graduation, Cristian Mungiu continues his assault on modern society in his native Romania. The difference here is that Mungiu offers his latest critique with a sense of humor (albeit weighted heavily to the wry side) as well as, perhaps more tellingly, a bit of hope. Although it would be stretch to call the film a comedy, there’s an absurdity to it that is akin to throwing one’s hands up in the air in despair, as if to say: it is what it is.

What it is, is the story of an honest man’s spiraling descent into a web of corruption that leaves his life completely unraveled. It all happens over the course of three days, with a plot so intricately and expertly layered that it would take up this entire review to fully dive into. As always, Mungiu raises difficult questions – If corruption is the law of the land do you eventually give in, or try to hold your moral ground? Can corruption be justified in the service of a good cause? – forcing the viewer to grapple with the answers on their own.

In short hand, Graduation is the story of Romeo a well-liked doctor and father to Eliza, who is on the verge of graduating and preparing to go to college. Romeo has spent his life guiding Eliza’s academic career in the hopes that she will win a scholarship to study in England which will be her ticket out of their small town, out of Romania, and into a better life. Romeo is haunted by his generation’s failure to rebuild Romania in the post-Communist era. All of his hopes and dreams are now with Eliza and it is his fervent belief that getting out is the only answer.

All Eliza has to do is pass her three day final exams, a feat which, as the film opens, is taken as a given. But then Eliza is violently attacked, and although she comes out physically unscathed, her mental state understandably calls into question her ability to focus on the task at hand. In a desperate measure, and without consulting with Eliza, Romeo arranges to have her tests graded with the necessary score.

On the surface it may seem a small thing, Romeo himself may even believe it a small thing – he knows she can get the score, he’s just buying a little insurance. But getting there is a series of small steps that eventually overwhelm him, revealing that the world around him is built on a delicate system of bribery and deceit. In the end, Romeo realizes that he is no more capable of controlling Eliza’s fate than he is of controlling his own. He is, of course, found out, and by attempting to save her, has only put her at risk.

In hindsight, Romeo’s fall seems inevitable. From the start, he is living a deceitful life. He and his wife have stayed together for the sake of Eliza, but are clearly estranged and he’s carrying on an affair with a former patient. What other secrets might Romeo be carrying? Throughout the film he is stalked by an unknown assailant who breaks a window in his home, vandalizes his car, and constantly makes their presence felt but never seen.

Mungiu’s point is that these minor decisions add up, over time, into something major. The first corrupted action only makes each successive one easier. At one point Romeo lures Eliza’s boyfriend into a meeting, only to physically assault him, convinced that the boyfriend is Eliza’s attacker. However we may judge Romeo’s actions, we understand him. He is a desperate man – desperate to find his daughter’s assailant, desperate for her to have a better life, desperate for justice. So much so that he is willing to commit an injustice to see it through. And we understand him because he is no different than anyone else.

Therein lies the brilliance of Mungiu’s concept – by grounding Romeo and his predicament in the ordinary, it forces a more thorough examination of his actions, making it all the harder to answer: What would you do?

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