The Future is For Our Children?

A Review of Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation

The question at the root of Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is a timeless and pertinent one: can our children make the world a better place, succeeding where we have failed? Mungiu gives us his latest complex view of society, presenting a narrative with no clear lines of morality, and no simple answers as to the best way to survive in a harsh world.

This world is, as usual, his own. Romanian society is his continual focus, and his films have taken place in the past, during the Communist rule of Ceaușescu, as in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and the present, examined through the lens of interpersonal and institutional entanglements, as in his last film, Beyond the Hills. In Graduation, the setting is contemporary and the lens is education, but we are also led through a maze of other systems: criminal, political, bureaucratic, and medical. It is an examination of a corrupted and struggling society, told as a family drama.

The film was released in Europe in the spring of 2016, but released in the U.S. earlier this year. The timing of the film's release makes it difficult not to see it in the context of our own societal debacle. It’s a sign of the film’s universality that one might compare it to whatever flawed society one lives in, but it is not my intention to ignore the specificity of Mungiu’s work as it relates to Romania. This may be an overarching issue with any foreign work of art: do we compare it to our own experiences, thereby validating its farsighted reachings, or do we appreciate that its validity can come from its specificity and examination of its own surroundings? We can do both, surely. This film is a close-up on a specific country, but exposes what is true in so many others, including our own: desperation in the face of corruption and economic struggle, hope draining from one generation as it tries to save the next.

Conflict and tension are set up from the beginning, with a rock smashing through the living room window of Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a doctor. He runs out of his apartment building, wandering around cement housing units, searching for an unknown perpetrator who is never revealed. Eventually he returns home, and goes on with his day, saying goodbye to his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), who’s hiding in her bedroom with a headache, and taking his daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), to school. We learn that Eliza is nearly finished with school—the next few days will consist of exams, and the plan is for her to go to a British university. Romeo drops her near a construction site, across the street from the school, to save time. He then goes to his mistress Sandra’s (Malina Manovici) place rather than to work, and it is there that he gets a call from his hospital that Eliza has been brought in after being assaulted.

Eliza’s attack sets the plot in motion: though she escaped being raped, she is nevertheless traumatized by the assault and robbery, and has a broken arm as a result of self-defense. Taking her three exams (which her scholarships to foreign universities are riding on) becomes a feat. Her devoted father, however, insists she’s well enough to take the first exam the following day and when she gets a lower-than-average score, he sets about finding less-than-honest ways of ensuring high scores for the other two. He is spurred on by a police inspector and the deputy mayor, both old hats at pulling strings within a murky and harsh society. Romeo, on the other hand, has never done “such things,” and neither has the exam board chief who agrees to make sure Eliza’s test is marked generously. The board chief owes the deputy mayor a favor from years past, and now so does Romeo, agreeing to bump him up on a liver transplant list. This amateur political intrigue and bureaucratic corruption makes up much of the plot’s action, but the heart of the film lies in the family dynamic, which reveals shadows of the past and a stubborn hope for the future.

But whose future? Romeo continuously argues with the women in his life about that future; he is insistent that Eliza must leave Romania in order to have any hope of a decent life. She was shielded from their harsh society, and now Romeo is sure she can’t handle life there. She must get to “a normal world,” a “more civilized” country. Discussing it with his mother, she argues about Eliza, “she should stay here and change things. If they all leave—” and Romeo rebuts, “We stayed and what did we change?” “You changed what could be changed,” she replies. Every small change combined makes a difference, each generation must do its part to move a country forward. Shielding children won’t help them, after all.

Magda argues with Romeo that Eliza is no more unprepared than they were at that age, and they learned. Romeo and Magda returned to Romania from Western Europe in 1991, during the worst of the economic decline following the revolution. “We thought we’d move mountains,” he tells Eliza, “we didn’t move anything.” The parents made sacrifices so the child may have a better life, but is it the life she wants? It becomes increasingly clear that Eliza has already begun a life: she has a boyfriend, has learned to drive a motorcycle from him, and the more her father hounds her about her exams and higher education, the more she rebels, of course. She also copes with her assault and the investigation quietly and stoically.

The scenes between Romeo and Magda reveal them to be ruined, defeated characters. This is especially apparent in Magda, who seems lifeless, hunched and smoking or slowly shelving books at her library job. The real fear is what they’ll do with themselves when Eliza has left—they have no life together to speak of: she knows about Sandra, and Romeo sleeps on the couch. Magda speaks of following Eliza when she leaves—her only idea of life is one with her daughter. Romeo has the possibility to build a new family with a new woman, but is fixated on Eliza for much of the movie, until the later scenes when he watches Sandra’s young son for a morning and teaches him a hollow lesson about right and wrong behavior. Both parents’ sole focus in on their daughter; their difference of opinion lies in whether breaking the rules will ensure her a better future or impede it.

The pressure put on Eliza is no joke, as is often the case with model children. Romeo purports that he has no regrets for staying, but that it was still a mistake, and if Eliza makes the same mistake, they’ll have “lived for nothing.” Putting unreasonable expectations on a child is common in both wealthy and struggling families; the difference is that wealthy parents expect their children to continue a legacy and be just like them, while struggling parents expect their children to do the opposite, escape the existence of the family and save themselves (perhaps helping the parents after they’ve succeeded).  But in this case, those expectations do not extend to changing their own society. Romeo believes Eliza can make no difference, and trying would be throwing her life away. Throughout the arguments and discussions in this film, the question becomes not just whether a new generation can make the world a better place, but even if they cannot, should parents let them try and fail anyway?

The last scene takes place, appropriately, in the school. In one of his signature long takes, Mungiu’s camera lingers on a painted mural of a bright-eyed boy and girl engaged in a science experiment, an image of a hopeful future. The style of the painting harks back to possibly the 60s or 70s, which would have been during the Communist rule, usually thought of as the darkest days in Romanian memory. But the mural is far from crumbling; it looks new and fresh, and at the close of such a story, represents a false hope. Yet Romeo brings Sandra’s son past it, and into an empty classroom where he sits expectantly in the front desk. Outside, Romeo takes a photo of Eliza with the rest of her smiling graduating class. We hear his voice off-camera urging them to smile bigger, be “happier!” The expectations of parents that their children will find only happiness is blind and unrealistic, but understandable, nonetheless. It is up to the children themselves to thwart simplistic expectations, which they inevitably do, in completely unexpected ways. 

Aria Chiodo is an Associate Editor at The Mantle. She hails from New Mexico but is now based in Astoria, New York. She writes personal essays, short stories, and travel essays, but her first love is cinema.