Can anyone hold a shot like Cristian Mungiu?
Like a tenor sustaining a high C in a Verdi aria, the Romanian filmmaker has developed a singular cinematic language, composed of long, unblinking takes. This ruthlessly observational style isn’t unique to Mungiu, of course; it’s been standard fare since the beginning of cinema. But few filmmakers have mastered and perfected the approach so thoroughly, calibrating performance, setting, pace and forward movement that, even at its most glacial, bursts with tensile, pent-up force.
Those values were on masterful display in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Mungiu’s breakout 2007 film. And they infused “Beyond the Hills,” a religious melodrama that entailed a surprising amount of keening, high-pitched emotionalism. The writer-director returns to form with “Graduation,” a close study of post-Soviet Romanian life that engages issues of ethics, globalism, civil society, personal morality and the agony of parental separation within a genre that might be dubbed a socio-philosophical thriller.
As “Graduation” opens, in a smallish town of Cluj, an unseen laborer is digging an enormous hole outside a modest apartment complex. Moments later, inside one of the units, a rock sails through the living room window. Is it an errant piece of detritus from the big dig? Something more sinister? That’s the question faced by Romeo (Adrian Titieni), the prosperous physician who lives there, and who is busy bustling his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) out the door and attending to his homebound wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar).
On Romeo and Eliza’s ride to her high school, we discover that she’s preparing for her final exams, which will determine whether she can accept a highly coveted scholarship to attend college in England. The test is merely a bit of official red tape for Eliza, who has been a stellar student. But, as she wistfully talks about missing her friends and meeting her motorcycle-riding boyfriend later, it’s clear that her desire is wobbling, if not waning entirely.
Filmed in tight intimacy by Mungiu, and edited to increase the viewer’s sense of looming foreboding, “Graduation” takes a dramatic turn early on, after which the story becomes a thought-provoking, often painful microcosm of the little questions that vex most human beings on any given day, but that can quickly balloon into high-stakes existential crises. (As one character observes dolefully, “Misfortunes occur, unpredictably.”) There will be interactions with any number of Romanian institutions, including Eliza’s school, where Romeo encounters a caring teacher (Malina Manovici); the hospital where Romeo works; the local police department (alert viewers will recognize Vlad Ivanov from “4 Months”); and Romeo’s own crumbling marriage. What emerges is a portrait of idealism tempered by cynical, hard-won experience in post-communist Romania, where an entire invisible economy has blossomed on the strength of favors, obligations, status and expediency.
Of course, Romania isn’t the only country in which social capital is king. Because of that, “Graduation” resonates not just as a vivid portrait of a culture at a particular moment in time, but also of the most enduring and confounding contradictions of human nature itself. Although he’s contemplating age-old arguments about means vs. ends, Mungiu nonetheless infuses them with timely relevance, both in the context of a world order that has become broader and more cosmopolitan, and a society that, 30 years after its rebirth, still struggles with establishing agreed-upon norms, expectations and rules of the road.
Put most simply, Romeo is in search of justice, and he doesn’t care how many rules he must break to find it. At one point, his bullheaded journey takes him to a literal and figurative no man’s land, where he’s completely disoriented and stripped of the power his profession and carefully cultivated respectability gave him for so many years. Deceptively simple on its face, “Graduation” is full of such bluntly effective scenes, which Mungiu films in wide, generous shots, the better to accommodate his characters, their environments and their unspoken history. The power of the film is cumulative, as the filmmaker spins a mesmerizing morality tale from the dross of daily life. In his skillful hands, the ordinary turns out to be anything but.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some obscenity. In Romanian with subtitles. 127 minutes.