Graduation: a starkly-absurdist morality play that leaves you hanging

By Jim Slotek

I’m going to commit a cardinal sin here, and refer – however obliquely – to the ending of Cristian Mungiu’s absurdist drama Graduation. It is a movie that teases with loose ends and is disinclined to reward the viewer’s hunger to see them resolved.

Not quite the Sopranos. Although once my annoyance subsided, my brain did concoct an ending that wasn’t there, just as it did with Tony.

Otherwise, Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) tells a fascinating little fable about doing the right thing in a corrupt society.

Adrian Titieni and Maria Dragus in Graduation

Adrian Titieni and Maria Dragus in Graduation

That society is Romania – a post-Communist, quasi-free-market society that seems to run on a daisy-chain of people scratching each other’s back for sketchy favours. More specifically, it takes place in a seedy Transylvanian corner of the country that is bleaker in its own crumbling-modernist way than any Western horror-movie stereotype.

The protagonist is Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a surgeon with a reputation as a moral man, in that he is known to have refused bribes. He nonetheless is carrying on a listless extramarital relationship with a local teacher who may be pregnant with his child - which may or may not have something to with the rocks that keep being tossed through his window.

Suffice to say, if there is a Romanian word for ennui, Romeo suffers from it.

His one hope in life is that his clever teenage daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) can score a scholarship in the U.K. And even that dream hits the skids when Eliza is sexually attacked in broad daylight, with the result that she is a distraught wreck for her qualifying exams and may flunk herself into a dead-end life with her motorcycle-driving, unemployed boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici).

Cue a Machiavellian parade of offers-of-favour that becomes almost comical for a movie in which everybody is so relentlessly miserable. Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), the town’s deputy mayor and “fixer,” needs a new liver, and will pull strings to top-up Eliza’s marks if Romeo can move him to the top of the liver list. Romeo’s dip into educational influence-peddling extends to trying to get his mistress’s learning-disabled son into a top middle school.

The web of favours begins to darken, and paranoia seeps into Graduation. Does Marius have something to do with his own girlfriend’s attack? Who has been tossing rocks through Romeo’s window anyway? And did someone rat him out to the local police?

For the answers to these and other questions… well, let’s just say I’d love to compare notes. Mungiu does drop clues, as much to feed the audience’s imagination as to feed Romeo’s paranoia. The message overall seems to be that you can’t be a little bit moral any more than you can be a little bit pregnant.

And he does paint a portrait of a grim place to call home, a Soviet-era remnant where people aren’t starving or otherwise lacking in creature comforts, but shrug and aspire to nothing. It is a stark and wry tale, chockful of believably-drawn lives of quiet desperation.

And hey, endings are overrated anyway.

Graduation. Directed by Cristian Mungiu. Starring Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Petre Ciubotaru. Opens June 2 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Jim Slotek

Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.