Graduation (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): For his daughter’s future

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Romanian film “Graduation” is a brilliant moral drama which calmly and incisively delves into not only its ordinary hero’s complex moral circumstance but also a glum, corrupt society surrounding him and others. He simply wants to do what he thinks is best for his dear daughter’s future, but then he comes to cross lines like many other people around him usually do, and the movie engrosses us as steadily observing the slow but inevitable progress of the following consequence of his choice.

During the early part of the movie, we get to know a bit about its hero and his family. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is a middle-aged physician living in a city located in the northwestern region of Romania, and it seems he has been modestly successful in his professional career, but he has not been that happy with his life. There was a time when he and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) were young and hopeful as Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist regime collapsed in 1989, but now they become jaded realists casually going through their mundane daily life, and it is apparent from their interactions that there is not much love left between them. Usually looking moody and depressed, Magda spends most of her time in their shabby apartment unless she goes out for working in a local library, and Romeo turns out to be in an extramarital relationship with a younger woman named Sandra (Mălina Manovici), who has recently been very frustrated as their relationship is going nowhere.

We gradually come to sense that Romeo and Magda have maintained their loveless marriage mainly for their adolescent daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguș). Both of them want Eliza to have a better chance for her life, and it is not so exaggerating to say that Romeo has had vicarious satisfaction from his daughter for years. He and his wife have strenuously prepared their daughter for the enrollment in some prestigious university in London, and now she is about to go through the final step of her parents’ plan. In the upcoming graduation examination, she must attain high test scores for getting a scholarship for her education in London, and she is ready for that task even though she looks less enthusiastic about her future in London than her father.

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However, an unexpected incident happens to Eliza, and it seriously threatens what her and her parents have built up for years. Not long after Romeo takes her to her school by his car, she is suddenly assaulted by some unknown guy at a nearby construction site while walking alone to her school, and her parents are naturally shocked by this terrible incident while also wondering whether their daughter is in a right condition for her upcoming examination. Although it is fortunate that she only suffers a minor physical injury during the assault, she is apparently traumatized by the incident, and that means she will likely get lower test scores than demanded. Maybe she should postpone her examination, but then it will be too late for getting that scholarship, so Romeo and his wife find themselves helplessly stuck in their dilemma as pondering over what they should do for their daughter.

And that is when Romeo begins to be tempted to get some backdoor help for ensuring his daughter’s high test scores. Through a police chief close to him, he meets a few people who can pull some strings for what he wants, and, of course, he is asked to do something unethical in exchange. When she hears about that from her husband, Magda objects to that, but Romeo has already made a decision. While he has been proud of his moral integrity, he cannot resist this shady opportunity because of his daughter, so he eventually compromises his principles as justifying his unethical action.

Maintaining its non-judgmental viewpoint, the movie slowly accumulates tension on the screen while its hero’s life is gradually imploded as if it were a sort of karmic consequence. After Romeo tells his daughter about a little thing she must do during the examination, he and his daughter become distant to each other, and that inevitably influences his relationship with Magda, who has put up with many things but now comes to decide that enough is enough. In addition, he later finds himself in another serious trouble due to that unethical action of his, and that may ruin not only his life but also his daughter’s.

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As he did in his previous films “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” (2007) and “Beyond the Hills” (2012), director/writer Cristian Mungiu, who received the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year (he shared it with Olivier Assayas for his film “Personal Shopper” (2016), by the way), firmly sticks to his own dry, stark visual approach while deftly handling his story and characters. Many scenes in the film are presented via continuous single shots, and cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s handheld camera is steady while often making judicious movements for subtle but impactful dramatic effects. The characters in the movie are realistically depicted with recognizable human nuances, and we accordingly get immersed into their world as becoming more involved in its hero’s circumstance.

The performers in the movie are all effortless in their natural performances. While Adrian Titieni did a masterful job as a man who slowly sinks into his moral quagmire, Maria Drăguș, who played one of key characters in Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (2009) is equally terrific in her role, and she and Titieni are particularly excellent during one quiet but tense conversation scene which totally depends on their acting. Lia Bugnar and Mălina Manovici are also fine in their respective supporting roles, and so is Vlad Ivanov, who played that horrible abortionist in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”.

Overall, “Graduation”, which is released in South Korea as “Eliza’s Tomorrow” is a compelling drama supported well by its top-notch direction and acting. Its story and characters are specific, but its main characters’ human matters feel quite universal nonetheless, and its rather ambiguous but nearly perfect finale will linger on you for a while after it is over. This is one of better films I saw during this summer season, and I wholeheartedly recommend it without hesitation.

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