Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Oct 11, 2016 6:19 pm 
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VLAD IVANOV, MARIA DRAGUS IN GRADUATION

Shit hits fan

The doctor protagonist, Romeo (Adrian Titieni) falls into a world of trouble in Cristian Mungiu's new film, Graduation, which centers on his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drǎgus), who's about to take her final exams when she's sexually assaulted by a stranger and breaks her wrist fighting him off. In typical style for Romanian cinema, the film is ferociously unfun, without an ounce of humor. But it enmeshes us in its troubles. The Romanians make films that are like police procedurals that want to be soaps, but are more intricate and patient. Mungiu has written and crafted this film with care, though intentionally paying little attention to arc. Resolution would be a cop-out and dampen down the multivalence of plot too much. So Eliza graduates from high school, but without our learning if she's aced her exams, which Romeo has cared so much about he was willing to throw away his moral reputation to fix the outcome. We don't know if she'll attend university in Cluj with her easygoing jock boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici) or go to England on a prestigious fellowship at Cambridge as Romeo's been preparing her for her entire life.

Artists aren't always the best judges of what their work is about but Mungiu has been definite that this film is about the age when your best years and your dreams are behind you. This is what Romeo's struggle is about. He's presumably a respected doctor, but there's nothing about his achievements or reputation. He's having an affair with a foreign coworker, Sandra (Mǎlina Manovici), his marriage is on the skids. He tries to belittle the attack on Eliza - tests show she was not technically raped, but when she gets a lower score on her Romanian exam when she needed a 9 or a 10 he persuades a corrupt official to arrange it to be altered. The point is Eliza has become his hope, the dream he lost by choosing to stay in the country, but she's slipping away.

Mungiu is a Cannes darling and hence a director with global cred, having won a Palme d'Or for his corrupt abortionist drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days nine years ago, as well as lesser but respectable Cannes awards for his 2012 Beyond the Hills and for this new one. But writing from Cannes, Mike D'Angelo (who gave a much more detailed account of the film in his AVClub review than I do here) suggested that this time Mungiu's thinking has lost its urgency. Mike wrote that if he'd seen Graduation a dozen years ago its story of a moral "slippery slope" would have "mightily impressed him" but less so now.

Watching Graduation I felt its source is in the Seventies, in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalg," the Polish master's series of studies of moral crises encountered in the nightmare of Eastern Europe. Mungiu's work here is serious and absorbing but hasn't Kieslowski's economy or elegance of construction. As I say, the Romanians almost seem to eschew construction altogether. What they excel at is providing endless poignant details of the long littleness of former Soviet Union life. Maybe my favorite Romanian film was really the first I saw, at the 2005 New York Film Festival, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It's a film that just goes on and on and on, till it ends. But it is a dazzling as well as numbing illustration of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption with fatal results. The action is mundane, but urgent, and in the end, the title comes true.

But if Mungiu is playing with corruption, and yet it's not his main subject, that's confusing. And in his discussion of the film at a NYFF Q&A he suggested audiences have been confused about what it's about. Is Romania getting more honest? Is what Eliza tells her father at the end a sign of improved morals, or cheating in new, or even more old-fashioned ways? Graduation is heartfelt material that provides much food for thought, but it is neither as artistically satisfying nor as intellectually coherent as it might be.

Graduation/Bacalaureat, 128 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2016, showing at at least 15 international festivals, including the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. US theatrical release by Sundance Selects starts in NYC 7 April 2017, followed by a national rollout.

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