Romeo Aldea might have been a good person if not for one fact: He’s convinced he’s a good person. The main character of Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s remarkable Graduation walks through every scene of this intimate, spare drama with the utter assurance of a man who knows nothing is ever his fault. In other hands, this material might have been the makings of a grand farce in which our callous, pompous protagonist gets his delicious comeuppance. But in Graduation, as Romeo wades deeper into a quagmire of his own making, there’s no pleasure to be had in his undoing. His actions are despicable, but his motivations remain stubbornly understandable. Yet it’s not what he does in Graduation that stings—it’s the way he justifies it that’s most galling.
Adrian Titieni plays Romeo, an upstanding, middle-aged surgeon living in a small Transylvanian town beset by crime, unemployment, and corruption. He and his librarian wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) long ago stopped pretending they have a loving marriage. (He’s been permanently banished to the couch.) But the one thing that still brings them joy is their bright, sensitive teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), who plans on going to college in the U.K. to study philosophy. To receive a substantial scholarship, though, Eliza must ace her final exams—which shouldn’t be a problem for this conscientious student.
Romeo is particularly proud of his daughter, drawing his self-esteem from Eliza’s achievements and protective of her potential. (He never misses an opportunity to denigrate her lackadaisical, motorcycle-riding boyfriend, who he fears will distract Eliza from her bright future.) But it’s Romeo’s own carelessness that sets Graduation’s escalating nightmare into motion.
One morning on the way to school, Eliza is assaulted. She barely avoids being raped, fighting off her unknown assailant. However, the reason she was even in that predicament was that Romeo, anxious to meet up with his secret mistress Sandra (Malina Manovici), dropped her off a few blocks from school so that he could more quickly rendezvous with his girlfriend.
Plagued by guilt, Romeo discovers that, despite going through this ordeal, Eliza must still take her multi-day exams starting the next day. Normally, Romeo wouldn’t worry about his little girl’s test-taking skills, but she’s clearly rattled on the first day of the finals, scoring poorly. Fearful that Eliza’s future may be snuffed out because of him, Romeo decides that the lessons he’s instilled in his daughter—be honest, work hard—need to be set aside so that she won’t be cheated out of her destiny.
And so, the good doctor begins an insidious series of covert deals. He’ll see to it that an ailing man gets bumped up the national waitlist for liver recipients—just so long as that man talks to a school administrator about “fixing” Eliza’s test scores. But things get more complicated once it becomes clear that Eliza will have to knowingly participate in this scheme by marking up her test in a specific way so that the administrator can properly flag it.
Working without music and filming each scene as one long, unbroken take, Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) immerses us in Romeo’s panicked, suffocating mindset. Graduation is hardly the first film in which one bad deed leads to another, but it’s among the most dispassionate and ambivalent. Partly, that’s because Romeo’s plan doesn’t involve anything as truly terrible as killing. (What is he, a common criminal?) But also, I suspect it’s because Mungiu based the script on his own experience as a father, once describing the film as “about compromise, parenting and children and understanding this relationship between what you say to your children and what they see you doing.”
Little wonder, then, that Graduation, although clear-eyed about its protagonist’s poor judgment, never overtly condemns his decisions. The world of Graduation is one in which there seems to be no form of external punishment—no all-seeing god that will weigh in. The silence we hear on the soundtrack might as well be the absence of a comforting moral center in this universe. But it’s also indicative of what Romeo sees in a community he once idealistically thought he could change—instead, it’s become a town of indiscriminate vandalism, where “knowing a guy” makes every bureaucratic obstacle much easier to navigate. Some thug very nearly raped his daughter and stole her chance at a better life—why should Romeo worry about fairness any longer? What would any father do in that situation?
Played by Titieni with stone-faced superiority, Graduation’s ethically challenged doctor flaunts a blunt pragmatism that doesn’t just surface in his handling of Eliza’s test scores. Romeo sees everything solely through the prism of how it affects him. Sandra’s concerns about getting her troubled young son into a good school mean nothing to him—doesn’t she understand he’s too busy worrying about Eliza? His terse interactions with Magda are only focused on how she can help him persuade Eliza to go through with the exam. As for Eliza, she delivers a body blow to Romeo when she suggests that maybe she doesn’t want to move to the U.K., which he considers an insult after all the work he’s put into her education since she was a girl. Why won’t these people listen to him? Don’t they know he has their best intentions at heart?
Parents will do anything for their children—it’s a trope we often see play out in revenge/rescue thrillers like Taken. But Graduation twists that truism until it becomes something sinister. There’s not one moment in this film in which Romeo isn’t trying to protect Eliza. But that protection becomes a form of control—a control he exerts over every character he comes across. Early on in Graduation, when Romeo is complaining about Eliza’s choice in boyfriends, an exasperated Magda advises her husband, “Not everything’s about you, you know.” His tragedy is that he’s not listening.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for The New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site