by Ken Korman
What constitutes “realistic” in the cinematic world of today? Gritty crime stories often are described as realistic, but so are indie dramas that capture the rhythms of speech and the subtleties of behavior. Realism always has been a moving target. What passed muster in the early days of Hollywood looks utterly artificial today.
Celebrated Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) has developed his own narrowly focused ideas about bringing realism to the big screen. The writer-director’s current methods include using a stationary camera to film long scenes as a single shot without edits or soundtrack music, two elements that typically serve as cornerstones for filmmakers building traditional cinematic experiences.
But Mungiu’s Graduation (for which he won a Best Director award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival) is anything but traditional. The story of a well-intentioned doctor who suddenly finds himself willing to do anything to help his daughter earn a scholarship and escape the entrenched corruption of modern-day Romania, Graduation explores the traumatic effects of compromising deeply held beliefs and the dangers of becoming what you have always opposed.
Mungiu’s spare methods can be exhausting over the film’s two-hour-plus running time but are ideally suited to building the anxiety and dread at the core of this story. In a clear mark of success, you’ll be too immersed in the characters’ harrowing predicaments to think much about the film’s underlying techniques.
Estranged from his wife and currently stringing along a younger mistress, 49-year-old physician Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) has managed to raise high-achieving daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), who has been offered a scholarship to Cambridge University — the only possible escape from the limited opportunities, poverty and crime of her native land. Eliza is assaulted in daylight on the eve of an exam on which her scholarship depends, leaving her too traumatized to perform up to her full potential. But Romeo may have the connections to leave nothing to chance as regards Eliza’s life-altering test scores.
Graduation builds slowly as it accumulates the details of daily life needed to illuminate the community’s tightly woven web of deceit. Favors are exchanged and rules quietly broken in a place where nothing is sacred and everything is for sale. “This is the world we live in,” Romeo tells his daughter. “And sometimes we have to fight using their weapons.” But there’s no way out of that world once one makes that choice — there are too many people empowered by their knowledge of others’ complicity.
A strange immediacy results from scenes carefully choreographed to work when shot mostly from an unchanging perspective. The technique necessarily recalls documentary films, along with the experience of seeing a play, but it generates its own vibe. Natural performances are especially crucial in this setting, if only because there are fewer outside elements available to tell the story. Mungiu encourages his talented cast to speak in unusually soft voices that are more expressive and less stagy than the alternative, which further heightens the intimacy of his film.
Though specific to Romania, the small-scale corruption portrayed in Mungiu’s film is meant to reflect the harsh realities of daily life all over the world. It’s easy to think of corruption as the province of the wealthy and powerful, but the truth is more complicated and troubling. Graduation aims to show how any remedy has to start at home — though being among the first to change surely carries a heavy price.
Graduation begins an exclusive run at Chalmette Movies next Friday, May 5. More info is here.