NYFF Film Review: ‘Graduation’ Represents a Grim Slice of Romanian Life

2016 New York Film Festival: At this point, it doesn’t look like Cristian Mungiu is ever going to make a happy-go-lucky film. With his latest outing, the drama “Graduation,” he’s perhaps gone into overkill. It especially seems off when the movie sort of veers toward a happy-ish ending, which is at odds with what has come before. At its best, “Graduation” is powerful and observant about the human condition in Romania, but that’s a sporadic accomplishment. Too often, things move at a snail’s pace and simple points are hammered home time and time again. A little bit can go a long way with some of these lessons, but that’s lost on Mungiu. It’s a shame too, because for about half of this film, you want to invest. The longer it goes on though, the more it keeps you at arm’s length.

With “Graduation,” Mungiu is continuing to explore dour themes, but it seems to be to slightly lessening effect now. What was devastating in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” now is almost commonplace. Knowing that tragedy for this country and its people are always on his mind dampens the impact. After the initial body blows that the characters suffer, you just begin waiting to see if there will be more. “Graduation” just doesn’t have enough else to offer in order to lend itself to a positive review. It’s not anywhere near a bad film, and fans of Mungiu will appreciate this one too, but it’s definitely a mixed bag.

Things begin as we see a rock go through an apartment window. The apartment belongs to Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), who lives there with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) and their daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Drăguş). Romeo drives Eliza to school, where she’s studying for a final exam that will let her continue her studies in the United Kingdom. He drops her off, but on her walk, she’s the victim of an intended rape. She’s only mildly assaulted, but it shakes her up, along with the rest of the family. Magda is concerned for her daughter’s mental state, but Romeo mostly seems worried that her move to the U.K. is being threatened. As someone who left Romania and returned, he wants her to leave for something better in the worst way.

At the same time as Eliza is recovering, Romeo is dealing with the systemic corruption in his country. He wants his daughter to have no part in it, but he’s caught. He’s an honest doctor, but in order to help get strings pulled so Eliza stands the best chance of passing her test, he does a favor at the behest of Ivanov (Vlad Ivanov) for some important people. It’s the sort of compromise of values that he hates, but his reasoning is as pure as it can be. When “Graduation” hits on this point, it’s on firm ground. Sadly, too often it’s just content to observe the grim life of Romanians in this specific town.

graduation-xlarge_transkduk_7yrndcembxizlwpmdr_gs07mk3tgai31jbflxsThere are two nicely understated performances here, which help to anchor Mungiu’s vision in all of its realistic glory. In the lead role, Titieni consistently depicts the weight of the world on his shoulders. Not every decision Romeo makes is the right one, but you understand them all. That’s due in large part to Titieni, who is gritty in a very subtle way. He helps keep you from totally fading when the story lulls. Also doing fine work is Drăguş, who never goes overboard with her character’s suffering. Drăguş feels like a real teenager, and that’s important. Bugnar and Ivanov head up the supporting cast, which also includes Petre Ciubotaru, among others.

Mungiu really made a name for himself internationally with “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” “Graduation,” however, is more of a slow test of your patience like “Beyond the Hills.” It’s compelling at times and occasionally gripping, but you’re left wanting more. The script is tight, but the direction just lets things play out with no sense of urgency. A tighter pace might have done Mungiu a world of good.

It’s possible to be a bit hard on “Graduation” because it’s not on the level of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” At the same time, even on its own it just feels to be slightly lacking. Again, if you’re a fan of Mungiu’s prior outings, this could be right up your alley. For me, I’m getting closer to considering him a one hit wonder, in the sense that he got his masterpiece out of the way early. “Graduation” is consistently grim, so unless you’re completely at ease with that, this film might just wind up depressing you.

“Graduation” will screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 11.

GRADE: (★★½)