Try, Try Again
by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Cristian Mungiu, Romania, IFC Films/Sundance Selects
“Sometimes, in life, it’s the result that counts,” concerned father Romeo tells his daughter Eliza on the eve of a crucial school exam in Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation. In Romeo’s mind, the stakes couldn’t be higher: if the girl scores well, a scholarship to a prestigious institution in London awaits her, and, by extension, the promise of a future abroad, far from their small Romanian town. If not, she’ll remain at home, in a country her parents’ generation valiantly tried to change after the fall of Ceausescu. Though the adults in Graduation maintain traces of pride for the attempt, and refer to it not infrequently, they also freely admit their ultimate failure.
This isn’t any ordinary pep talk, however, for Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is trying to convince Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) to cheat on said exams. The day before the testing began, the girl was sexually assaulted in a parking lot across the street from her school and left shaken, with her writing wrist in a cast. Not confident in her performance on the first day of tests, her father, a local doctor, moves into action, pulling strings and calling in favors willy-nilly to find a way to ensure Eliza passes. All she needs to do is cross out a few words on the bottom of the first page and her test will get special consideration. The choice, to him, seems clear: either cheat and open up possibilities for her future, or be honest, stay in Romania, and slowly rot. If she fails to get out, Romeo tells her, “It means we lived for nothing.”
Mungiu’s feelings about his home country as gleaned from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills certainly aren’t glowing. Yet in both of those films, he set his critique somewhat at a remove via displacement: through the 1980s Communist period setting in 4 Months, and by locating Beyond the Hills in a cloistered minority religious community. Graduation drops viewers firmly in contemporary Romania, and offers the image of a nation where the trappings of modernity have been uneasily papered over a people and culture that have what seems to be a deep history of patriarchal tribalism. Where society’s official bureaucratic channels don’t maintain order so much as provide cover for those back channels where things really get done.
Following the attack, Romeo spends time at the police station trying to figure out the next steps in the case. His friend, the Chief Inspector (played by Vlad Ivanov, the chilling abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), gives him a little extra attention, as an unspoken favor, of course; later, when he introduces Romeo to the department’s sketch artist as a hospital doctor, that man immediately replies, “Really? Could you maybe put in a word for my grandfather?” Romeo queries him politely about the man’s case—he’s Bilai, the Vice-Mayor, something of a community elder with a checkered past and the need for a new liver. This conversation seems to happen in passing, something Romeo’s unlikely to follow up upon, until his quest to help Eliza leads him straight to Bilai himself.
By film’s midpoint, we watch as Romeo juggles his wife, daughter, younger mistress, his job, the search for a liver for Bilai, and legal complications brought on by inspectors looking into Bilai’s past misdeeds who may now know about Romeo’s attempt at cheating on the exam. These more concrete concerns are augmented by threats from a mysterious unseen assailant who, in the film’s first scene tosses a rock through Romeo’s living room window, and continues such mischief throughout the film. Mungiu’s Romeo is sympathetic, well-meaning, and charismatic, but it’s also clear he’s not terribly honest. Though he’d likely claim that it is society that’s broken him down, Mungiu’s films to date point to the idea that societies are often broken by individuals acting badly en masse.
Though Romeo’s the ostensible protagonist, the narrative is formed around his daughter—who is something like a structuring absence—and his obsession with an idea of her purity. Talk of penetration occupies an inordinate amount of screen time, even after it’s expressed early on that her attacker did not achieve the totality of his ends. “No. My girl wasn’t raped. Just assaulted,” Romeo assures another man, a palliative statement that clues us in to what may be Romeo’s ultimate worry. When Romeo’s sickly, estranged wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar)—with whom he still maintains the semblance of household normalcy for Eliza’s sake—tells him that his daughter’s virginity had been surrendered (willingly) some time ago, he’s crestfallen.
There’s irony to Romeo’s penetration obsession in that, at the time of the attack, rather than carrying out his scheduled rounds at the hospital, he was in bed with his younger mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici), a single mother and teacher at Eliza’s school. Romeo arrives at the hospital with a ready excuse (“I was in the other wing…it was faster to walk”) for his upset and enraged wife, and as we watch his interactions with staff at the hospital, it seems clear that the doctor is often absent. “Saving” Eliza seems to jumpstart him into a level of activity to which he’s not accustomed, and Mungiu’s framings often emphasize Titieni's heavy torso as he trudges grimly through the stained concrete wasteland Mungiu suggests equals Romania. Signs of decomposition and social disease are evident in nearly every frame of Graduation. Nothing works here, except the old ways: wheeling, dealing, favors exchanged between men granted power based on dubious achievement.
As in his previous two films, Mungiu favors long takes, bobbing and weaving handheld, frenetic bits of motion punctuating endless stationary two shots in which ethical dilemmas unspool haltingly through dialogue. Here, Tudor Vladimir Panduru shoots instead of the rightly vaunted Oleg Mutu (4 Months, Beyond the Hills, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), but one would never notice the change, so strong is Mungiu’s authorial stamp. If Cristi Puiu is the Romanian New Wave’s poet philosopher, and Corneliu Poromboiu its absurdist comedian, Mungiu is something like its social justice warrior (or perhaps its highest-profile feminist?). His event-heavy plots always seem to circle back to what Romania is, where it’s been and where it’s headed, with a special focus on how the country’s state impacts women.
This is not to say that Mungiu’s films are rote exercises in blunt statement-making, but at the same time one wouldn’t accuse them of subtlety. Though we never lose sight of Romeo, Eliza, Sandra, and Magda as individuals, Graduation continually broadens out through a series of institutional representatives (school, police, law, government) such that by the end, the entirety of society seems implicated in fixing the exam for Eliza. “She can’t handle life here,” Romeo says of his daughter, and in Mungiu’s vision it’s not clear at first who can. “She’ll learn” is Magda’s reply, and in Eliza’s ultimate decision to control her own destiny Mungiu finds the cautious hints of optimism for this girl, and, by extension, Romania.