One of the leading lights of the Romanian New Wave, director Cristian Mungiu returns to Cannes with Graduation, a contemporary morality tale about how, in attempting to free his daughter from the confines of a corrupt country, a previously honest man himself becomes corrupt. Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is a good doctor with a reputation for honesty. He left Romania in his youth but returned following the fall of the Ceaușescu regime, a decision he now regrets. With this in mind, he’s extremely keen for his daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguş) to pass her final school exams and secure her place in an English university.
England is a normal country, Romeo repeatedly asserts, not like the corrupt system he has to live under. However, other things are afoot. Someone is breaking the good doctor’s windows and the day before the all-important exams begin, Eliza is attacked and injured fighting off her would-be rapist. Romeo’s wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) wants him to go easy on her but now the father is more determined than ever that she leave the country that he has grown to detest. Worried that she won’t be able to get the high scores necessary, he is advised by police chief inspector Ivanov (Vlad Ivanov) to appeal to Vice Mayor Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru) to intervene. If the girl marks her paper with a prearranged signal the examiners will make sure she gets the grades she needs.
Meanwhile, it also becomes apparent that this is not the only compromise. Romeo is having an affair with school teacher Sandra (Mălina Manovici) and the closely woven lies are beginning to become unstuck. This carefully-constructed drama has a way of evoking mysteries without ever bringing them fully to fruition. With all the broken glass around, there is a sense of danger and although this is early summer, the landscape is one of scrubland and brutal tower blocks which look like they are in black and white even when they’re filmed in colour by DoP Tudor Vladimir Panduru. There’s humour as everyone mutters condemnations of their own country and the endemic corruption even as they themselves participate.
With Graduation, Mungiu presents a more subtle notion of corruption. When the state is so inflexible and inhumane as not to allow leeway for exceptional circumstances, a little bit of corruption might be a good thing. It allows for citizens to manoeuvre beyond the realms of strict legality. Even fighting corruption can involve corruption as is evident in the visit by two inspectors who hint at offering Romeo immunity if he should cooperate. There is also the generational angle as Eliza has none of her father’s ambition and would much prefer to stay in her own country with all her friends and her boyfriend. They have no illusions about their country, and yet it will be up to them to redefine it.