Romanian writer and director Cristian Mungiu has established himself as a major international filmmaker over the course of a small selection of films, from the devastating Palme d'Or winning '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' to the haunting religious drama 'Beyond The Hills'. Both these major films revealed an astute, uncompromising eye, unafraid to approach controversial material but doing so with quiet humanity. With his latest film 'Graduation', Mungiu turns his attention to the complex dynamics of the relationship between father and daughter, and what happens when the intimacy of that relationship is tested.
Romeo (Adrian Titieni) wants the best for his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), who has the opportunity to study in the UK and leave the small Transylvanian town where they live. Her final exams are compromised though when she becomes the victim of an assault, and in his determination to make sure his daughter has a better life than he has, considers drastic and illegal actions to make sure it happens.
'Graduation' finds Mungiu demonstrating the same formal rigour and restraint that made his previous films such impressive and emotional experiences, but in this case the material itself doesn't have quite the same impact. The emotional stakes are definitely high, but Romeo ends up being a difficult character to connect to, and by making him the central focus of the film, it suffers as a result. His motives are understandable, but he acts with an increasing lack of consideration for others, including Eliza, and the film itself offers little commentary or dissection of his actions. This may be Mungiu's intention, to leave space for the audience to come to their own decision, but in a film where the female characters play secondary roles to the men both in narrative function and in agency, it ends up being another film about middle-aged white men using their clout as middle-aged white men to assert their power against one another. By circumnavigating legal channels, Romeo shows surprisingly little regard for his daughter and her intelligence, and coupled with the disregard for both his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) and mistress Sandra (Malina Manovici), it complicates the sexual politics to the extent where you find yourself against Romeo as opposed to supportive of him. Again, this ambiguity may be the point, but where that observational quality worked so well in Mungiu's favour before, it does less so here.
It's hard to really pinpoint the things that let 'Graduation' down because the film also seems to be lacking any immediacy or drive. The film moves at a laborious pace, unsupported by a clear narrative drive, and while the structure follows the kind of docudrama form of realism that should serve this kind of story, it prevents the film from being a satisfying experience. There's also a lot of ambiguity to the film, the implication that someone is directly responsible for the grief being caused to Romeo and his family, but it ends up feeling derivative of Michael Hanake's 'Hidden' (2005) and without earning the right to ask these kinds of questions without answering them. That same lack of enthusiasm permeates the performances. Adrian Titieni does a fine job as Romeo, but his performance is as lacking in drive as the film itself. In the end, the emotional heart of the film comes from the women, specifically Maria Dragus and Lia Bugnar.
It's hard to really pinpoint the things that let 'Graduation' down because the film also seems to be lacking any immediacy or drive.
After two genuinely affecting films, it's a surprise that Cristian Mungiu's 'Graduation' incites such little enthusiasm. Its intentions are unclear, its characters are hard to connect with and its cold, objective approach robs the narrative of any of its emotional potential. It's hard to know what you're supposed to take away from the film, making it yet another European film that seems to be more concerned with the weight of its own self-importance. I'm sure there's a great film in there and that I'll be in the minority about this one, but if 'Graduation' is supposed to offer questions on the human experience and the complexities of being a parent, it doesn't ask them in a way that makes you want to seek the answers.