It’s a paradox that parents spend years preparing their children to leave home and live independently, then regret the results.
The challenging, unnerving drama “Graduation” shows how that contradiction torments Romeo, a respected doctor in a meager Romanian hospital. He hopes for his scholarly daughter Eliza to escape the widespread bribery and sleazy corruption of her impoverished homeland, attend college in London and have a better life far away.
When dangerous challenges threaten Eliza’s crucial pre-university assessment tests, Romeo tries to treat the problem in ways that increasingly corrupt his own ethical standards. After years of teaching Eliza honesty and responsibility, Romeo begins conveying some deeply troubling, life-altering lessons.
We also learn a lot about Romeo (deftly played by Adrian Titieni). He’s a truly doting father, but is entirely unconnected to his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar). She lives separately in the family apartment like a recluse, their 25-year personal battle frozen in a shaky truce. Romeo has a lover in town who resembles a youthful version of Magda, treating her politely but without any passion beyond the physical. She appears to be a minor subplot in Romeo’s life, yet she plays a key role, as in the film.
In a well-stocked collection of female characters, none is as important to him as Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). When his daughter is physically assaulted by a street thug before an important exam, Romeo feels a special pang of guilt because he dropped her off near the school and sped away to his mistress’s bedroom. To set things right, he makes it his mission to identify Eliza’s attacker.
This leads him to a pleasant, ethically flexible police inspector who connects him to the unscrupulous, glad-handing vice mayor, who offers important favors and emoluments if Romeo can move him to the top of the waiting list for an operation he wants. Like a wall of dominoes, one tap sends the doctor’s scruples toppling in a row. Romeo masters the art of rationalizing his own crimes by being shocked at them. Yes, he accepted or made bribes — but if he regrets that, doesn’t it demonstrate he’s not entirely bad?
While it is shot in near-documentary form amid authentically grim locales, the movie is an exquisitely plotted, jarringly presented moral puzzle. Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu makes chilly, thought-provoking films about families, politics and crime where everyone is guilty to some extent, and the guillotine about to fall is controlled more by fate than justice.
With its brooding feel and anti-glamorous visuals, it’s not the easiest film to watch, but in terms of sociopolitical drama it’s well worth the effort.
Starring Adrian Titieni, Maria-Victoria Dragus and Lia Bugnar. Directed by Cristian Mungiu. In subtitled Romanian.
Rated R for some language. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 7 minutes.
Bottom line: An exquisitely plotted, jarringly presented moral puzzle
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