Graduation: Helicopter Love

*** ½ (out of 4)

Anyone who’s ever been through high school knows how far some parents are willing to go to ensure their children “get the future they deserve.” But even by those standards, the main character in Graduation, the latest movie from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, stands out for his sheer tenacity. To ensure that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) can pass her finals after an attempted sexual assault – thereby ensuring she keeps a scholarship to Cambridge – the father protagonist (Adrian Titieni) doesn’t stop at just pestering beleaguered administrative officials. Throughout the course of two hours, in fact, we watch as he suffers through physical beatings, eviction from his home, and even the prospect of jail time in his desperate quest to rig the grading in Eliza’s favor. By the time you’ve gotten through all of Dr. Romeo Aldea’s travails, Amy Chua and her violin regimens look like a mere warm-up exercise.

Ironically, the tagline on the movie’s poster states that “A father will do anything to save his daughter’s future”; reading it, you’d almost be led to believe that Romeo’s actions are all executed in the name of selfless sacrifice. Those who’ve lived with helicopter parents, of course, know better – and in the portrait he creates of Romeo, Mungiu finds several ways to suggest that no matter how often Romeo says he’s only thinking of Eliza, his real motives are actually far more self-centered. For one, the two don’t appear to be that close: Mungiu avoids directly showing us the attempted assault – as if to suggest a certain detachment on Romeo’s part – and he usually sets up what few conversations the two of them have in such a way that Romeo is either not looking at her or haranguing her about her insufficient work ethic. Combined with Romeo’s strange insistence on emphasizing to people that “she wasn’t raped, it was only an attempted assault” and his shock upon learning that she isn’t a virgin, this all suggests that he cares less about Eliza herself than preserving an idealized mental image of her.

Then there’s the fact that Romeo’s own life is rather…sucky. After all, he lives in a place that looks as rundown as the outskirts of Detroit. (Ditto for the hospital he works at.) His relationships with others are either weak – a recalcitrant wife (Lia Bugnar), an unhappy mistress (Malina Manovici) – or based on fairly empty tit-for-tat arrangements. While driving, he often finds himself listening to a nostalgic rendition of Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” aria, and he regularly engages in rueful monologues about how he once thought he could’ve “moved mountains.” In the wake of all this, Mungiu suggests that Romeo therefore sees Eliza as a chance at redemption, an opportunity to vicariously escape from his dreary reality. The avidity with which he talks about her visiting the Kensington Gardens seems to very much reflect his own desire to do so.

Beyond this piercing portrayal of a parent gone overboard, it’s in general hard to watch Graduation without instinctively making comparisons with Mungiu’s similarly grim breakout hit 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. And if you were just going by character nuance alone, Graduation would certainly live up to 4 Months’ high bar. For starters, Romeo definitely gets a little ruthless, and he’s sometimes tone-deaf – but when a group of criminal prosecutors visits his office, he nobly does all he can to make sure Eliza doesn’t get implicated. Eliza, meanwhile, is the victim of both a horrific crime and unwanted parental angst, but she’s also quite naïve; given the endemic corruption you witness, her desire to stay in Romania with her evasive motorcyclist boyfriend (Rares Andrici) smacks of an extremely limited worldview. And although Eliza’s mom doesn’t agree with Romeo’s morally questionable decisions, we don’t see her engage in much conversation with Eliza either, and we get the sense that she, too, is somewhat detached from her daughter’s struggles. Mungiu aims to portray human beings: his characters are flawed but easy to identify with, and if their various desires and actions don’t necessarily earn our endorsement, they always have our understanding.

In other areas, however, fans of 4 Months might instead find Graduation a bit of a letdown. 4 Months, after all, had some truly remarkable camerawork: the combination of tense long takes and frantic shaky-camera shots created an atmosphere defined by a mix of heartrending austerity and primal fear. This movie doesn’t carry the same intensity: aside from a few well-placed long takes in which a rock shatters a window or windshield – as if Mungiu seeks to highlight the chilling banality of such actions – the visuals usually don’t lend themselves to any sort of distinctive ambience. [1] Moreover, while the final scene of 4 Months proved an understated but compelling close to Otilia and Gabriela’s heartbreaking story, the inconclusiveness of Graduation’s ending – spoiler alert, we never find out whether Eliza goes to Cambridge or not – leaves you unsatisfied, especially since you feel you’ve gotten to know these characters so well over the course of two hours.

And yet, none of this manages to derail the movie’s overall impact. If 4 Months provided an oblique portrait of Ceausescuian Romania, Graduation succeeds in providing an insightful follow-up look at a Romania still struggling to find its footing in a post-Communist, free-market EU. The stubbornness with which Romeo insists on sending Eliza to England, for one, provides a statement on seemingly insurmountable economic disparities worthy of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. And the self-interestedness with which the characters by turns criticize and embrace corruption – as just one example, a police officer Romeo knows (Vlad Ivanov) regularly rants about how Romania is so “messed up” but encourages Romeo to seek the help of a corrupt official – provides its own grim diagnosis of why Romania remains mired in backwaters. As long as people make exceptions when they’ve got skin in the game, Mungiu suggests, Romania will remain a political and economic weak link, the country that anyone with a modicum of ambition will want to abandon. An upsetting idea, to be sure. But here, there’s no denying that it packs a powerful punch.

***

Graduation (2016)

Country: Romania/France/Belgium. Dialogue in Romanian.

Starring: Adrian Titieni, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Lia Bugnar, Malina Manovici, Vlad Ivanov, Rares Andrici

Running Time: 128 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for some language.”

Produced, Written, and Directed by: Cristian Mungiu

***

[1] One noteworthy exception: during a scene in which Eliza is asked to identify her assailant from a lineup, her back and the group of suspects take up most of the screen, but at the edge of the frame, you can see a faint reflection of Romeo looking on from behind her. It’s a beautiful representation of their strained father-daughter relationship – but again, such a telling visual setup proves to be an anomaly.