Despite some questionable actions, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Adrian Titieni’s Dr Romeo Aldea in award winning director Cristian Mungiu’s film Graduation (or Bacalaureat as it is known in its native Romania); weighed down by middle age and with only his good reputation to comfort him and measure his success by, he cannot help but feel shortchanged by life. In the 1990s, following the end of Ceausescu’s brutal reign, it was Romeo’s generation who felt anything was possible and that they had a duty to stay and rebuild a free, egalitarian Romania, fit for the twenty-first century. Fast forward to today, and Romeo sees that their dreams and their hard work lie in tatters all around them.
In his home of Cluj, in the northwest of the country, Romeo still lives in a Communist-era, breezeblock estate that was meant to triumphantly cry solidarity but instead bewails its despair. Trapped in a loveless marriage with his meek and sickly wife Magda (Lia Bugnar), he seeks comfort from the affair he conducts with a former patient, but he seems forever aware of the sobering realities that impinge upon his existence, thanks to a mobile phone that seems to perpetually ring, offering bad news and stark realities at every turn. Romeo has tried his best and has gained some personal success, but he doesn’t like the Romania he has helped to make; petty vandalism and crime is on the increase; physical assaults can happen in broad daylight, and a kind of low level masonic ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ style corruption runs through its bureaucracy like a body riddled with cancer. The good doctor sees this, and the good doctor is despairing.
It’s only natural then that Romeo would want something better for his daughter, Eliza, played by Maria Dragus. She’s 18 and blessed with intelligence. She performs well at school and has the offer of a scholarship to study psychology at a British university, subject to the grades in her final exams. For Romeo, he sees in this opportunity for his daughter the escape that he was too foolhardy to make for himself. He paints a Utopian picture of Britain that one imagines he once pictured for the future of his own homeland, and frankly, it is one that can only be conjured up by someone who has never actually been here. His image of his daughter being chased by squirrels in Kensington Gardens is the kind of twee and magical dream any parent would perhaps have, but it is in his belief that the UK offers a more civilised society that does not suffer the same national disease of cronyism and corruption which shows the true extent of his dreaming – especially in the wake of Brexit and the antagonism so many EU migrants are forced to endure from Farage’s sheep.
Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when, on the morning of her penultimate exam, Eliza is physically assaulted by a would-be rapist on the street across the road from the school. Whilst she suffers only a sprained or broken wrist in the attack (which occurs off-screen) it is clear she is in no fit state to sit an examination. For Romeo, this is the very worst thing imaginable. Seeing her chance of escape slipping away because of the illegality of others, he is forced to wade into the corrupt backwaters of favours, quiet words and the old boys’ network to ensure his daughter gets what is rightfully hers. Like the pitiful creatures who are paraded before Don Corleone at the start of The Godfather, Romeo must endure the personal embarrassment of petitioning the local Mr Fix-it, an elderly and shady yet cuddly politician, Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru) who hopes his help will improve his chances of getting the liver transplant he urgently requires, and the school’s exam committee president (Gelu Colceag), in an attempt to get a blind eye turned to his daughter’s naturally effected academic performance. But the most painful moment of all comes not in front of these obliging accomplices, but when Romeo finds that he reveal his plan to the one person he always wanted to keep pure – Eliza herself.
Mungiu shoots both Titieni and Dragus in profile in Eliza’s bedroom, the sound of rain against the window outside, as he inducts her into the world he always promised to keep her safe and away from. It’s skillful yet simply crafted, absorbing scene, in what is already a deeply engrossing film. Watching a man sell his soul piecemeal for his daughter’s future has never felt so intimate or intricate, and proves a cinematically damning indictment to a Romanian society well versed in such acts.