Cristian Mungiu’s latest movie, Graduation—for which he won Best Director at Cannes last year—opens with an establishing shot of a dusty European square surrounded by small apartment blocks, then quickly cuts to an interior: a neat living room, with lamps and sofa and table. And there the camera lingers. You might think it a photograph, if net curtains weren’t moving slightly at the picture’s edge. There are a few lulling seconds of noise from the off-screen square: cars, children playing. Then abruptly a rock is thrown through the window—and the curtains flare out wildly.
This image of an interior shattered by outside forces could be the emblem for all Mungiu’s films. He loves to present stories in which someone’s integrity is assailed by external influences, and Graduation offers one of his most melancholy contraptions for testing his characters’ limitations. The setting is the Romanian city of Cluj. Romeo, a doctor, lives with his wife Magda and daughter Eliza. He is quietly pursuing an affair with Sandra, a single mother who is also a teacher at Eliza’s school; meanwhile, he is gently evading questions from his aging mother about her deteriorating health. But this system of everyday domestic duplicity is soon to be overtaken by a larger network of moral compromise.
Romeo’s obsessive goal is for Eliza to get the grades she needs from her high school exams so she can go to university in Britain. He is desperate for her to leave the country—just as he blames himself and Magda for returning to it, after leaving in 1989. (“We thought things would change,” he tells his daughter, “we thought we’d move mountains. We didn’t change anything.”) But Eliza is sexually assaulted the day before the exams; injured and in shock, she still has to take the tests. Her first exam goes badly. It is suddenly uncertain that she will get the necessary grades.
What follows is a family melodrama, taking place over the two or three days of the exams: a chain of small corruptions and unexpected calamities, as Romeo makes a deal with the deputy mayor, the chief of police, and the headmaster of Eliza’s school, involving a carousel of mutual favors, in order to have Eliza’s grades quietly doctored. And in the process, the large hinterland of Romeo’s self—his capacity for betrayal, contradiction, self-pity—is brutally revealed.