MOVIE REVIEW | 'Graduation' a methodical, understated drama

It was all supposed to go so smoothly. Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a successful physician/devoted father living in a small Romanian town with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) and teen daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Douglas). Eliza is a good student who is on track to graduate and obtain a scholarship to attend a prestigious university in the U.K. However, unforeseen chaos threatens to put this plan into jeopardy.

On the morning that Eliza is set to take her final high school exams she is randomly assaulted, leaving her shell-shocked and in no shape to focus on an exam. Being the devoted parent he is, Romeo is concerned about his daughter’s safety/health but he’s also worried about that scholarship. If Eliza doesn’t do well on her exams she won’t get the scholarship. What’s a concerned parent to do in order to preserve her bright future? Cheat.

So begins writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s methodical, understated drama “Graduation,” which thoughtfully explores the ethical dimensions concerning parenthood and the subtler modes of corruption that find their way into everyday life.

There are no overt forms of corruption and crime in this picture; there are no gangsters or rotten police officers and the resolution isn’t settled with violence. Instead “Graduation” focuses on smaller, seemingly less harmful, more ambiguous forms of corruption. On the one hand, it’s just a school exam, what’s the harm in Romeo manipulating the results, especially in light of what Eliza has been through? She’s a good student dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic incident. On the other hand, regardless of the circumstances, manipulating test results is still unethical and it could set a bad precedent. What other dishonest deeds are Romeo willing to do for his family? Dishonesty, whether big or small, is still dishonesty.  

Accompanying this dilemma, “Graduation” scrutinizes the ethical challenges of being a parent. The line between wanting what’s best for your child and controlling every aspect of their life and destiny isn’t always easy to see, especially for such a protective father like Romeo, who personally takes Eliza to school everyday and often exhibits helicopter parent tendencies. At a certain point, you have to step back a little and let your child/young adult live their own life, the way they want to live it. Romeo will clearly do anything to make sure his daughter can move on with her life but is that what Eliza wants? Does she even want to go to the U.K. in the first place or is that what Romeo wants?

Mungiu does an exceptional job of crafting a multidimensional protagonist that’s sympathetic and frustrating. Romeo is well intentioned; he genuinely cares about his daughter and wants her to have a great life, a better life than him. But as the film goes on, he becomes increasingly self-absorbed and constraining--projecting his own regrets and failures on Eliza’s life and being inconsiderate of her feelings. “Graduation” is about how our affections and selfish hopes for our children (and loved ones in general) can occasionally be suffocating and damaging, and can lead us down a path of dishonesty. The line between what’s right and wrong becomes murkier when family is involved. Mungiu examines these issues plaguing Romeo and Eliza’s relationship with restraint and nuance, never spoon-feeding the audience or resorting to melodrama.

After such heavy, deeply depressing dramas like “4 Months 3 Week and 2 Days” and “Beyond the Hills” it’s refreshing to see that Mungiu is capable of making a film that’s thought provoking and absorbing but also doesn’t make you want to commit suicide afterwards. “Graduation” is certainly no cakewalk but it also doesn’t wallow in gloominess/ tragedy and it ends on a hopeful (hinting that Romeo is capable of seeing the error of his ways) and ominously open-ended note — will all those small corrupt acts go unnoticed by authoritative forces forever?