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Though realistic, "Graduation" is not an easy watch

Cristian Mungiu is the writer and director for “Graduation,” a Romanian language film set in a Transylvanian town and focuses on a doctor and his family. The simple summary is reflective of the incredibly realistic film. The doctor, Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), is incredibly concerned with getting his daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) to take her final exams and go to university in the United Kingdom, where she has scholarships already set up. Romeo is so concerned with this that he forces his daughter to take the exams even after she was assaulted and nearly raped the day before the exam begins. “Graduation” follows Romeo on a deep rabbit hole as he tries to do what he thinks is best, bribing and doing favors for those higher up in the education sphere.

“Graduation” is a very stereotypical contemporary realism film. There are certain techniques that Cristian Mungiu uses to achieve a heightened level of immersion for the audience that are very popular for most realism films. The lack of a soundtrack and a combination of hand-held and steady camera movement, both combined with very realistic dialogue and plot immerse the audience deeply in this Romanian town. The camera never leaves Romeo’s side, making the viewer feel the same as him. As the panic and suspense increases the audience can feel the same because of the shaking camera chasing Romeo as he panics and runs.

While these techniques do bring the audience closer to Romeo as a character, the one issue that many viewers will face is identifying with the story itself. Much of “Graduation” seems to be a critique of Romania itself, something that many Americans will not understand. While one of the overarching themes of the film is “what is fair?” and “what is best?” these themes mostly focus on the Romanian context. It seems that crime, vandalism and death are so commonplace in Romania that nobody will react strongly to any type of pain anymore. Just from the opening scene the audience is shown Romeo’s living room with a window broken by a rock, and while he does run after the assailant, his wife and daughter do nothing more than simply ask who did it. 

But, the general story and dialogue allow the audience to become immersed in Romeo’s and Eliza’s struggles. The interesting thing about contemporary realism is that many of the problems or conflicts manifest before the camera even starts rolling. In the case of “Graduation,” Romeo’s marital problems, financial problems, conflict with his daughter and his mother’s health issues have already been going on before his daughter was assaulted. The assault only brings these problems to a head. This is a type of movie where the audience is able to be a fly on the wall in the household for a short period of time in the family’s life. The audience needs to just let the story reveal things as it continues and then piece things together afterwards. 

I find “Graduation” to excel at its dialogue and acting. To act as subtly as the actors do to represent not just a character but a real person is surprisingly difficult. The well written dialogue here aids the actors immensely. The dialogue is not just to move the story along. It is sometimes trivial or joking in times of intense darkness in these people’s lives. This is how real people talk. We crack jokes even when we are breaking down on the inside, we are serious and go at our problems only when we really have to. This dialogue is best to be experienced in the theater, rather than be described.

I would suggest to begin with a slightly easier foreign realism film such as “A Separation.” An Iranian film made by Asghar Farhadi, who recently was in the news for boycotting the Oscars because of Trump’s immigration ban. If you like “A Separation” continue on to “Graduation.” I found that while “Graduation” was relatively immersive, the film began to struggle as it continued. At a length of two hours, it felt like three after an hour and a half. “Graduation” struggles to keep the audience immersed in the winding and complicated story for the full two hours.

But, if you want more realism in your movies, then “Graduation” is exactly what you need in your life.

Rating: B

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