By Richard Brody
|Adrian Titieni and Maria-Victoria Dragus star in the grim drama “Graduation,” directed by the Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu.|
An important part of the pleasure of a movie is the sense of shared discovery—the feeling that what’s surprising in the viewing surprised the filmmaker as well, and the thrill of witnessing that attempt at something new. Similarly, what’s disheartening about familiar methods employed in familiar ways is the sense of routine, the overconfidence that arises from directors doing what they seem, presumptuously, to know how to do. And what’s all the more disheartening is when such comfortingly unexceptional methods aren’t merely tolerated but vigorously embraced—even rewarded with honors and prizes—by the art-house and critical community.
One example is the new movie “Graduation,” directed by Cristian Mungiu, who was named Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (a prize shared with Olivier Assayas for “Personal Shopper”). It’s a film of generic social realism, of an international style of no style, that proclaims, with its plainness, a fidelity to reality, to the external details of characters’ lives—at least, to those few that fall through the narrow sieve of the filmmaker’s intentions and designs. There is a modicum of documentary value in the movie, as a depiction of the way that people live now in Romania—or at least there would be, if the movie didn’t seem to throw its chest out proudly with the intention of showing How People Live Now, in capital letters, in Romania. But, for the most part, it is cinema-by-the-yard, the kind of pseudo-sophisticated self-congratulation that could serve as virtual art-house fan service, the marker of a social group’s identifying attitudes rather than a creation of independent substance.
Here’s the idea: Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a doctor in the Romanian city of Cluj, is unhappily married to a librarian named Magda (Lia Bugnar). They are the parents of a teen-age girl, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), an excellent student who has won a scholarship to a British university, contingent on her final-exam grades. But, the day before the first exam, Eliza is sexually assaulted en route to school and is injured while fending off the attempted rape. The exams can’t be postponed, and she is understandably distracted and distraught during the first test. Knowing that Eliza didn’t do as well as necessary, Romeo intervenes; a friend in the police department has connections with school officials, and he plots with the officer to have Eliza’s second exam automatically graded high enough to keep the scholarship. This scheme requires Eliza’s coöperation, however, and she is dubious of it. She’s even unsure of her desire to emigrate—it’s clearly her parents’ dream for her (former émigrés themselves, they returned after the end of the country’s dictatorship in 1991 and have been disappointed by the new society), but she has friends as well as a boyfriend (Rares Andrici) and, for that matter, apparently inchoate ambitions. But she grudgingly agrees with Romeo to put the plot into motion, setting off a chain of consequences involving those who do the favors and those for whom he has to do favors in return.
The movie’s multifaceted plot works conspicuously superficial variations on the themes of hypocrisy and corruption, starting with the deteriorating state of Romeo and Magda’s marriage. Romeo is having an affair with a woman named Sandra (Malina Manovici), a single mother who also needs a favor done on behalf of her young son, Matei. There is, in addition, a mystery plot in which the windows of Romeo and Magda’s apartment and Romeo’s car are smashed; there’s Romeo’s effort to play amateur detective and catch Eliza’s attacker on his own; and there’s a story involving the health of Romeo’s elderly mother (Alexandra Davidescu). Throughout, the action delivers exactly as much information as is needed to keep the movie on its single thematic track involving favors, compromise, and the dirty dealings needed to live what Romeo calls “a good life,” to be one of life’s “winners” rather than one of its “losers.”
Mungiu’s methods are similarly single-minded. Most of the film is shot in long takes, with two characters performing a virtual playlet as they soberly rattle off dialogue to move the action ahead, with the camera fixed in place or panning to keep a performer in the frame, or with the camera following an actor in motion (often from behind, with the comically overfamiliar trope of following the back of the head). It’s an ostensibly probing and revealing point of view that actually shows no more than what Mungiu intends, that filters out anything that doesn’t match his moralizing and attitudinizing message-mongering.
The larger problem that “Graduation” speaks to is the profligacy of fictioneering, which applies as much to literature as it does to film. More writers can accomplish more with essays and autobiographies than they can with fiction for one simple reason: being so fully in their own heads, being the auditors of their own unceasing internal monologue, nonfiction writers have merely to put out the cup and fill it from the passing current for it to be a pure and true draught of the inner life. Much fiction, by contrast, offers an excess of the outer life, of observations that only fleetingly suggest the internal depths of the people who are observed—and who flatten the narrator’s perspective to serve the needs and contours of the observed action and its dramatic scheme. Similarly, “Graduation” is a fiction in which any impulse toward actual discovery and observation that Mungiu may have is overwhelmed by his urge to say something.
There is an unrealized, unattempted, potentially audacious movie implicit in the contrived pseudo-realism of “Graduation,” one that would have allowed Mungiu to decry and detail, from a personal perspective, the corruption that he finds endemic and unendurable in modern Romanian life. He could have filmed from the window of a car as he drove through the town, for instance, or filmed some battered hallways and visited some offices and poked into the living rooms and bedrooms of his friends while he mused loud and long on the soundtrack about the degradations of Romanian life. He could have even sat at a table across from a friend or the camera and done as much. This kind of direct address may well have given his ideas and observations a more vivid and absorbing cinematic identity than does their readymade and prepackaged fictional incarnation. In any case, the possible strategies and styles for doing so are far greater than these examples, and the search for a form for his subject would have been a greater source of drama than the story itself.
Of all the threads in “Graduation,” the only one that has any life at all—any sense of wider and freer imaginative implications—is the marriage of Romeo and Magda. It’s the one story in which the fullness of mental life, of sedimented emotion and vivid memory, is evoked in epigrams and gestures. That’s due, in part, to Bugnar’s performance as Magda. It’s the only performance in the film that, in its quiet, tremulous, pain-streaked way, risks breaking the boundaries and demands of the plot to take on a separate and independent identity, a sense of being. It’s not that the other performances in “Graduation” are bad—in fact, they’re blandly and professionally good—but they’re repressed performances that, in their narrowness, evoke, above all, Mungiu’s own proudly earnest illusion of reality.
It’s a serious illusion that flatters the serious intentions of his serious viewers—a simulacrum of reality that’s neither real nor symbolic, and that shears off the divergent complexities of daily life and inner life, of identity and society and politics. Simultaneously, Mungiu’s vision avoids the aesthetic abstractions and ornaments that condense such loose ends into reverberant, interpretively untethered symbols. His aesthetic of no aesthetic, with its deceptively unvarnished depiction of staged events, flatters critics and viewers into thinking of their movie-viewing as no mere frivolous personal pleasure but as a constructive facet of progress. That comforting position of a superior viewpoint on which to contemplate and regret social follies and degradations is the first, unexpressed fiction of “Graduation.”
Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999, and has contributed articles about the directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Samuel Fuller. He writes about movies in his blog for newyorker.com.