Catherine Bray catches Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Competition film Graduation, a minor but riveting morality play.
For Cannes audiences with hopes pinned on Cristian Mungiu to deliver another knock-out blow of the kind he achieved with Beyond the Hills and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, his latest, Graduation, playing in Competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, may qualify as something of a disappointment. I have to say, I was riveted by this slow-burn precision construct throughout, but equally doubt that it’ll be something I’ll return to when making my “best of 2016″ list in seven months.
Focusing on a doctor determined that his daughter must, by any means, take up the scholarship she’s been offered to study at a British university, Mungiu constructs an ethical dilemma involving low-level bribery, whose spiral tightens with every turn of the screw. Where most of the decisions taken in the moment by any given character feel understandable given their context, it’s clear from the outset that the ensuing tangle of deception and compromise is both avoidable and inexorable.
Set in a bleak Cluj housing estate, the environment is one of stagnation, where moral decisions and the location work are both essentially a grey area. Mungiu poses the fundamental question of whether, given that a break with the nation’s compromised past can seemingly only itself be achieved by fresh compromise, this apparent break with the past represents a new dawn worth having, or simply a continuation of the corruption that has cut post-Ceausescu Romania off from fully functioning as a modern democracy.
It would all seem overly schematic were it not for the naturalism of the performances from a superb, un-showy ensemble including Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus and Lia Bugnar. Cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru rarely allows the actors to rely on the luxury of forgiving close-ups to communicate their characters’ emotions – instead they must work with their body language to show how they feel. Since they are frequently concealing their true feelings from whoever they’re with at the time, it’s a doubly tricky thing to pull off, but there aren’t any weak links.
The film I was most reminded of was not, in the end, one of Mungiu’s own, but the work of Michael Haneke on Hidden. There’s a similarly cool analytical perspective at work that neither condemns nor celebrates anyone’s choices – it merely seem to record, to dissect. Of course such objectivity is an illusion, as much a directorial choice as anything more overt.