Graduation: Solemn Noise, by David Bax
To simply list the events that befall the family at the center of Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation would make it sound like some kind of dark farce. A rock is thrown through their living room window, the daughter is sexually assaulted, the father runs over a dog, the grandmother has a stroke… It truly is a series of unfortunate events. Yet while there is drollness to be found here, Mungiu has more on his mind. This accumulation of calamities puts the main character, the father (played by Adrian Titieni), to the test, challenging him to adjust his moral center in an immoral society and to hang on to at least a piece of his soul.
Romeo (Titieni) is a doctor with an openly unhappy wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), and a more subtly unhappy mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici). The only real source of joy in his life is his daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), and even that relationship is fraught with his aspirations and fears for her future. Eliza has been offered a scholarship to a good school in the United Kingdom but only on the condition that her final exam scores remain above a certain average. When she is the victim of an attempted rape (while walking through a construction site because Romeo opted not to drive her all the way to school in order to fit in a pre-work quickie with Sandra) on the day before the exams begin, her prospects are suddenly in question. To keep hope alive, he must participate in the same favor-trading and corruption from which he hopes to protect Eliza by sending her away.
Mungiu (who also made the unparalleled 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) belongs to a vaunted class of international modern day filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi, Andrey Zvyagintsev and Kenneth Lonergan who build stories of massive import through an aggregation of smaller events assembling in staggering concert. These masters of quotidian drama are contemporary pillars of narrative cinema.
Such a grounded approach may not seem to provide an arena for technical virtuosity but Mungiu manages it nonetheless. Despite an absence of non-diegetic music, Graduation is a symphony of sound design. Whether it’s the din of the neighbors on the sidewalk, the distant sirens or the constant vibrating of Romeo’s phone, every inch of the sound track is covered with some specific noise or noises. It’s a kind of aural mise-en-scène that provides immersive verisimilitude.
Mungiu clearly wants the viewer to feel like they are a part of Romeo’s Romania if only so they can understand how badly he wants to get his daughter out of it. Eliza’s attack initially suggests Graduation will examine the aftermath of sexual assault as a legal matter in the country, the way 4 Months looked at abortion. Soon, though, it just becomes a part of the pervasive lack of hope (economic, political, etc.) in Mungiu’s Romania. The only path Romeo can envision is to allow himself to play the game as it is set up for him. He spends most of the movie trudging from person to person, offering what influence he has as a doctor for what influence they have as policemen, lawyers and school officials. “This is the world we live in,” he tells Magda, “and sometimes we need to fight using their weapons.” Even the law enforcement officials who believe in the law can only muster a qualified optimism. “He who persists in illegality will probably have to pay for it,” one investigator says, the word “probably” casting a shadow over the rest of the sentence. Under everything runs the faint suggestion that Romeo is wrong anyway, that neither Britain nor anywhere else actually provides a reprieve from the things he hates.
It’s heady and occasionally depressing stuff but none of Graduation would work as well as it does without Titieni, who appears in every scene of the more than two hour movie. He has the commanding yet almost dormant carriage of the late James Gandolfini. It’s a perfect performance for a perfect movie.