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Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungui seared himself upon the eyes of American moviegoers with the breathtaking and powerful drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, an explosive chronicle of someone helping a friend get an abortion under the ruthless Communist dictatorship of Ceausescu.
That film, along with others like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest, California Dreaming’ and Police, Adjective, cemented Romania, along with South Korea, as the countries that are making the best films in the world right now.
Mungui’s new film is Graduation, and it’s marvelous. The story revolves around Romeo, a respected doctor known for not breaking the law or rules. But when his daughter is attacked and becomes distracted, he is willing to do anything he can to make sure she finishes her final exams with high enough scores so she can get a scholarship to Cambridge.
Graduation may not be for everyone. The conflict is subtle, if not extremely subtle, the pacing leisurely. But there’s a madness to this method. In Mungui’s world (here, as well as 4 Months…), rarely does one say exactly what they want or what is expected in exchange. They talk around it and around it, constantly circling each other like fighters who never start punching, until the two participants fully understand what was being said between the lines.
In the U.S., parents are willing to do the same thing Romeo is doing here, they just wouldn’t be so circumspect about it. But here, the good doctor finds himself agreeing to things he would never agree to before, like helping someone move to the top of the list of those needing a liver transplant.
The movie is filled with unanswered questions. Someone throws a rock through a window in Romeo’s apartment and bashes the windshield on his car. He even says he thinks he’s being followed. But we never find out who is behind this.
When the authorities arrive at the hospital and start asking questions about what Romeo has or hasn’t done and what he can tell them about his friends, the movie ends in mid-investigation. We never find out who attacked his daughter and I’m not even sure we find out whether she ultimately did well enough on her exams to earn her scholarship or if she even plans to use it (though the cards seem to indicate she won’t).
But none of that really matters. What the movie is about is what happens when a good man is so fixed on something happening the way he wants it to and what results when everything stops going his way, especially in the very subtlety corrupt world of modern Romania.
And also with one of the leading actors of the Romanian new wave, Vlad Ivanov, as the police inspector. He played the abortionist in 4 Months…, the by the dictionary inspector in Police, Adjective and has appeared in such films as Child’s Pose, Tales From the Golden Age, Snowpiercer and Toni Erdmann.