Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: "Graduation"


It may seem like an odd reference, but "Graduation" reminded me greatly of "High and Low," Akira Kurosawa's 1963 drama about a businessman negotiating a spider's web of crime and corporate intrigue.

This film is set in modern-day Romania, and the protagonist is a put-upon doctor whose marriage has crumbled and his sole hope left in life is securing a scholarship for his daughter to study in the United Kingdom. When she is attacked and nearly raped, he must engage in a tortured path that involves nurturing his child, calling in favors to ensure she gets a high enough grade on her finals, compromising his morals and gathering together the tatters of his various, mislaid personal relationships.

The main character is not a powerful tycoon, as in the Kurosawa film -- it being important to remember that in Romania, and indeed much of the world, physicians are not compensated with the sort of largesse they are in the U.S. But within his Transylvanian town, he knows the system of give-and-takes, favors and outright bribes that are SOP to getting anything done.

Adrian Titieni plays Romeo Aldea, a 50-ish physician with a reputation for being honorable. He studied abroad, but years ago he and his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), made the decision to return home and try to make things better. Flash forward a quarter-century or so, and things are very much the same.

They own a modest apartment in a deteriorating part of the village; a rock is thrown randomly through his window. His mother is old and her health is failing. Romeo sleeps in the living room, and has for some time. He carries on a quiet affair with Sandra (Malina Manovic), a 35-year-old teacher with a young son. The women know about each other, and resent having to share Romeo's split attention.

It seems clear the situation is in a holding pattern. Once Romeo's daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguș), goes off to England, he and Magda will formally separate and he'll be able to give Sandra something more permanent.

But after Eliza is assaulted, everything in Romeo's world is upended. Left with a sprained wrist and few witnesses, the girl is not allowed to delay her final exams. (Cheating is rampant in the schools, as in the rest of their society, so cribbing notes inside an arm cast is an old trick.) Romeo asks for special dispensation from the test administrator, but is rebuffed.

While dealing with the search for Eliza's attacker, Romeo connects with old police friend for help, who talks to a department sketch artist, whose uncle is a government minister who needs a liver transplant -- perhaps the good doctor could see what he could do to speed things up? And in return, maybe the teachers could help out a little with the tests?

Before long, Romeo's descent into shady deals and general underhandedness is confirmed, with no bottom in sight. He even begins to suspect Eliza's motorcycle instructor-cum-boyfriend, Marius (Rares Andriçi), may be complicit in her attack.

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), "Graduation" is one of those films where little things add up to great portents. The humdrum tribulations of a humdrum village doctor feel sprawling and fateful, as if a microcosm of everything wrong in his country. It's like he represents the entire heart of Romania.





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