There have been plenty of movies that involve the premise, “How far will you go to protect your family/daughter/son/children, etc?” Many of them may even be provocative stories of fatherhood or motherhood. But in some cases, the child in question vanishes from the picture; they’re used only as a plot device to advance the motivations of the character.
Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” keeps this particular father’s daughter a continual source of emotion, conflict and intrigue. The Romanian director Mungiu gets back to the form of his seminal thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” with a tightly wound procedural drama set in Transylvania. It raises questions of community, morality and how the place you’re raised shapes the person you become.
17-year-old Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is just days away from taking her end-of-year finals before following a scholarship out of the country for university. But one morning before classes, she’s sexually assaulted, which leaves her mentally scarred and causes her to do poorly on her exams.
Her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a respected doctor and one of the few uncorrupted physicians left in the neighborhood, desperately wants the best for Eliza and starts pulling some strings to help her pass. At first it’s just taking a rain check. Then it’s trying to get her extra time to answer questions. And before long he’s negotiating a way to allow her to cheat altogether.
“Sometimes in life it’s the result that counts,” Romeo says in a heartfelt conversation with his daughter. “If you do something earnestly, with all your heart, you needn’t doubt yourself.”
Mungiu wrestles with that sentiment incessantly. He blurs the lines of right and wrong and Romeo’s own conscience (Romeo is carrying on an affair with a teacher when Eliza is attacked). He withholds details that have the characters debating whether what happened to Eliza was really rape. And he piles on a string of act-of-God nuisances and hardships that speak to the bleak conditions of their home (a rock is thrown through their window, Romeo runs over a dog on the road).
Mungiu’s noted long takes return in “Graduation,” and he uses them in combative two-shots between two fathers or partners staring each other down and tiptoeing around legal thorniness. Their dialogue in these shots is often brisk and hushed, creating suspenseful exchanges that are as invigorating to watch as they are to mentally process.
It isn’t long before Romeo’s questionable ethics start corrupting his daughter as well, and that twist on the story is something missing from so many father-child dramas. As a stellar examination of family, “Graduation” passes with flying colors.