Graduation is not the love letter to Romania that you might expect coming from a director, Cristian Mungiu, who is at the forefront of the country’s national cinema movement, the Romanian New Wave.
Romeo Aldea (Adrien Titieni) laments his livelihood as a doctor and as a father. As a doctor, Romeo has the reputation of being an honest man, a servant to the public. He feels that the town is swallowed by crime and corruption and has not changed for the better since his childhood. Rocks are repeatedly hurled at his window from unknown perpetrators, threatening the sense of shelter he feels at home. As a father, Romeo is insistent that his daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguș) attends university outside of the country, in the United Kingdom, where she obtained a scholarship to study abroad. He is hardly concerned with Eliza’s personal wishes for herself or her future. Romeo’s overbearing presence as a parent is illustrated in his inclusion within the film’s every scene as well as by the shaky handheld camera that follows him and induces tension and claustrophobia through the filming of interior spaces and crowds.
Eliza’s scholarship is contingent on how well she performs during her final examinations. When she is sexually assaulted while crossing a construction site on the way to school, Eliza’s performance is threatened by trauma inflicted because of the attack. Yet Romeo’s desire for Eliza to study abroad, to study somewhere safer, is more than affirmed. Romeo fears that Eliza can absolutely not stay within Romania- in raising her, it was under him and his wife’s assumption that she would perform well enough in academics in order to earn a scholarship to study abroad. They pampered her during her childhood and, inadvertently, diminished her degree of personal freedom as a young adult- a relationship she holds with her motorcycle instructor is not viewed upon favorably by Romeo.
As Eliza undergoes questioning by the police, Romeo is solicited to move up a hospital patient’s name on the waiting list for an organ transplant. Romeo cooperates and in doing so negotiates that Eliza’s exam scores be modified in case she does not perform well following her attack. Very little focus in Mungiu’s film is placed on Eliza and her coping with her assault- the prime mover is the series of final examinations that occur.
It could be said that Graduation is a film more so about how Romeo’s life changes upon the looming graduation of his daughter. In despising his hometown, Romeo attempts to live vicariously a life different than his own through his affair (which his wife knows about and the two hide from Eliza) and by sending his daughter away from home.
There’s an oft-repeated statement: actions have consequences. In Graduation, Mungiu captures a chain of events that illustrate this perfectly. His characters are flawed people in a flawed system, comprehended by and able to earn sympathy from audiences internationally, whether from Romania, China, Japan, the United States, or any other country that places immense pressure on students to perform in standardized testing. Eliza ultimately matures through seeing her father’s measures to ensure her reception of a scholarship while understanding his wishes and the consequences of his actions on their family. Nonetheless, in the final shot of Graduation, Mungiu reminds us that Eliza and her classmates are merely students. They are young, they are hopeful, they are smiling, and they are celebrating their graduation. They have their whole lives ahead of them.