Friday 12 May 2017

On DVD: "Graduation"

The great swells of the Romanian New Wave may have subsided since the late Noughties, but its luminaries soldier on, still trading in that rigorously wrought, socially pointed form of cinematic realism. Graduation is the latest from Cristian Mungiu, who gave us the knotty, gut-wrenching (and Palme d'Or-winning) drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days back in 2007. Where that breakthrough work was a (recent) period piece - allowing us to distance ourselves, in some ways, from the inhumanities it depicted - the new film gains much of its sting from an understanding it is unfolding in the Romania of the here and now: a country where toxic traces of the old corruption and vices continue to linger. At its centre is a family unit coming under threat both from within and without. A stone is hurled through a parlour window within moments of the start; several scenes later, our protagonist - a heavy-set, middle-aged surgeon named, with some degree of authorial irony, Romeo (Adrian Titieni) - receives a phone call that informs him his sole, beloved daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is down at the police station, having seen off an attempted rape. 

The girl's shaken but fine, though the broken wrist she incurred during the assault poses a problem, in that it threatens her success in the exam finals she needs to pass in order to get into Cambridge - and thus her chances of getting out of what seems to be generally agreed by these characters as a backward shithole of a country. Dad thus begins pulling strings, initiating several rounds of bargaining: agreeing to bump an elected official to the very top of the liver transplant list, say, in return for the addresses of those who'll be doing the exam marking, so he can go round and plead his girl's case. "Sometimes the result is all that matters," Romeo mutters, yet this huffing, puffing individual makes for an unlikely Machiavelli, possessed as he is of no particular cunning; combine this fact with our knowledge that this is un film de Cristian Mungiu, and any happy ending would seem to be gravely in doubt.

Graduation's theme would appear to be the perils of payback, in both the eye-for-an-eye and you-scratch-my-back senses of the term. Although he moves at a much slower pace, Romeo is something like an arthouse equivalent of all those hyperprotective patriarchs played in latter-day action movies by Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson: desperate to reassert some control over the world that has threatened his girl's innocence, but lacking the special set of skills that would allow him to do so. Instead, he spends the entire first half blundering further into a mire of his own making: taking up his own investigation into the attack, and shruggingly persisting with an affair with one of Eliza's teachers - which may just explain why Romeo's wife has confined herself to her bedroom with headaches, and perhaps why the family's windows are being put through: the sins of the father are being visited on everybody else.

This development carries the film in the direction of Hidden and The White Ribbon, but Mungiu proves even less interested than Haneke in comforting genre frameworks: Graduation's signature scene is the one in which the increasingly fraught Romeo pulls his clapped-out car over to the kerb to retreat into a patch of shrubbery, blubbering as he goes. (For all his bluster, this guy doesn't have any answers, either.) The tone throughout is dryly academic, that of a thesis being worked out, yet we do come to feel the fates of several characters being held in the balance: not just those of Romeo, Eliza and the depressive wife, but of Romeo's elderly mother, the literally jaundiced official, and the potential rapist, too, whoever that might be. Everything's up for renegotiation through the second half, as our hero's questionable decisions come back either to haunt him or hit him in the face.

I wonder whether the whole isn't still one more to admire than to warm to, particularly. As Romeo finds himself isolated on yet another patch of desolate wasteland as events draw towards their close, it can seem as though Graduation's main accomplishments are those of mathematically symmetrical screenwriting, plotting a drawingboard-neat path through the moral maze towards an ironic punchline you may or may not see coming. Still, if the grim urgency that dragged so many of us kicking and screaming through 4 Months has abated in Mungiu's filmmaking over the course of the past decade, it allows us to better spot how every element and encounter along that path serves to deepen or comment upon Romeo's predicament. It's left to a lowly detective to provide the movie's Renoirian epigraph: "Everybody has their weak spot." Ain't that the truth.

Graduation is available on Blu-Ray and DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye from Monday.    

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