Stephen Sambrook from Harbour Lights, Southampton reviews this week’s Discover Tuesdays presentation Graduation.
Part character study, part morality play, Graduation focuses on Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a doctor living in Romania whose frustrations with his country motivate him to provide a better life for his daughter, Eliza. A bright and hardworking student, she is sexually assaulted just before a run of exams that will determine whether she receives a scholarship to a UK university. This turn of events forces Aldea to consider compromising his integrity by using the corrupt bureaucracy of Romania to achieve what he sees as a fair result.
The right and wrong of the tale may seem simple on the surface – after all, this girl’s future is threatened thanks to an act of cruelty that she is in no way responsible for. But writer-director Cristian Mungiu returns to themes he explored in 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days where the morality of such is blurred, detaching it from what is ‘fair’ and forcing ordinary people into questionable choices. The level of favours sought by Aldea may never reach those of Bonasera the undertaker in The Godfather but they nonetheless go against what is held up as right and represent an abuse of his privileged position in the community.
Mungiu could easily have written Aldea as a perfect man forced into a desperate situation but we learn early on this is not the case. Among other things, his understandable motivations are clouded in selfishness and stubbornness. How much of his drive to better his daughter’s future is drawn from his own frustrations in life? How much influence should Eliza have in deciding whether or not her future is built on a foundation of compromises? And, ultimately, does doing the wrong thing for the right reasons justify those actions? The film expands past its moral quandary to become a portrait of the man at the centre of them.
Outside of a firm critique on the state of Romanian politics (though even there he offers a small amount of hope in the form of the younger generation, who are not yet resigned to how things are), Mungiu offers few concrete answers: he merely observes events as they unfold. It may seem easy to determine the stance the film takes on what Aldea chooses to do, but by offering no real alternative to his actions, it becomes a more satisfying drama where the themes are explored rather than stated.