To director Cristian Mungiu, Romania is not just a country – it's a state of mind. The 48-year-old filmmaker grew up in a post-communist society, one where citizens still feel the boot of Soviet rule that ended nearly three decades ago with the overthrow of Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His latest, Graduation, isn't quite on the landmark level of his searing 2007 abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but this gripping film still sizzles with Mungiu's social-realist concern for people who believe they can't raise their position based on merit alone. In that sense, the filmmaker is working on a universal level.
Graduation pivots on the life of Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni, from The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), a doctor who lives in a small provincial town with his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), and their only child, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). His dream is to see his daughter find a new life away from her battered country – which she can do by winning a scholarship to a British university. It's a done deal, except for her final exams. Then the unthinkable happens. Eliza is assaulted at knifepoint by an unknown man. She fights him off, but the trauma shakes her to the core. She bungles her exam. All looks hopeless until Romeo decides to call in a few favors. Mungiu is subtle about showing the tentacles of corruption reaching out to crush his characters. And suddenly, it's just like the old days.
The effect is devastating, allowing this simple, often bleak moral fable to take on enormous formal and emotional power. Titieni's performance as the small-town doc uncovers deep levels of feeling. But it's Dragus who makes the daughter the fascinating enigma at the heart of this deceivingly complex tale. The director often photographs Eliza from the back so we see what she sees – but we don't see her reactions. He wants us to determine that for ourselves, and that trust in his audiences is what gives Graduation it's driving force. It also demonstrates why Mungiu is a world-class filmmaker. His keen eye misses nothing.