Graduation is one of those rare feature films that feels like a documentary because its characters and the choices they make are so firmly grounded in a setting that is as complex as ours. It doesn’t offer easy examples of how to live in a morally complicated world, nor does it condemn its characters for going against their principles to protect those they love the most.
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu (4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days), Graduation tells the story of Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a doctor living in a small town in Transylvania. He and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar)have done their best to raise their daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) with the best education money can buy. His goal is for Eliza to study psychology in the UK upon completing high school. In order to secure a scholarship, she must ace a series of final exams, which she is poised to do. However, on the eve of her first exam, Eliza suffers a physical assault and an attempted rape, which throw her immediate future into disarray. Romeo enters into a series of agreements with powerful men in their small town to ensure Eliza’s success. However, his choices fly in the face of what he and Eliza’s mother have taught her about honesty, hard work, and integrity.
Like his critically acclaimed 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, Graduation throws the audience into a morally complex universe. Romeo is willing to do anything he can to give his daughter an advantage, even if it means breaking the rules that he has instructed Eliza to live by. The film becomes a complex tale about the lessons we teach our children, both in word and deed. It is a haunting reminder—especially in these days of fake news—that younger generations are constantly watching and absorbing our behavior and the choices we make. Mungiu writes about this aspect of the film:
One day, you become a parent. That’s when the self-questioning starts. What should you tell your kids? What do you prepare them for? Do you guide them on the path that you have taken, or do you encourage them to be principled no matter what, since their journey is just beginning and they don’t yet owe anything to anybody? Naturally, as a parent, you want the best for them. But what is the best for them? And which world are you preparing them for –the one you grew up in, or the one abroad? For the real world, or for an ideal one?
Though set in a small Transylvanian town, the realities and relationships in Graduation are universal. Romeo constantly bemoans the fact that he and his wife returned to this small town, when they could have enjoyed a better life elsewhere. All he sees is corruption and lack of opportunity around every corner. He wants to protect Eliza from a similar experience by giving her an out, even though he fails to see his own complicity in the brokenness around him.
In Graduation, women seem to have little agency, and its ambiguous conclusion is a result, largely, of Eliza exercising hers. Magda and Romeo’s mistress seem to have little control over the choices that he makes, all of which have consequences for their lives. However, there are moments in the film when women speak truth to power. When Romeo says, “All that counts is getting to a normal world,” his wife responds, “How you get there matters too.”