There’s a lot of talk about “nice men” in Graduation. Nice men who will help you cheat on a test, nice men who will bump you up on the liver donation list. “He’s a nice man, he will understand.” A network of nice men form the fabric of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s irony-fueled tragedy, and the nicest of them all is Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a well-meaning doctor whose college-bound daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) is assaulted just before a pivotal entrance exam. She’s traumatized — and her writing hand is sprained — so Romeo, like the good dad he desperately needs to believe he is, sets out to bend the rules for her, so she can get into Oxbridge and make his and his wife’s humdrum life mean something.
Graduation, like Mungiu’s lauded 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, layers misfortunes and mistakes on top of one another in a way that feels both oppressive and true. It’s largely constructed out of long conversations, often done in one take, where avalanches of fate-changing information are delivered in some cases without the characters leaving their chairs. The film ends up playing out like a much more talky, small-town-corruption version of Final Destination. By refusing to accept one cruel twist of fate, Romeo sets in motion an entirely different domino collapse that ends up implicating pretty much everyone in his life. Mungiu is almost sadistically patient in letting this play out; by the last 40 or so minutes you can more or less see where it’s all headed, even if it’s through your fingers.
The attack, as well as the unexplained windshield smashings and rocks through windows that punctuate Romeo’s family’s life, may or may not have been random. There’s a creeping sense, in the spirit of Michael Haneke’s Caché, that the past holds a long-forgotten injustice that is now being avenged. Like so many cinematic petit bourgeois strivers before him, Romeo surrounds himself with classical music and opera to buffer his conscience. As a viewer, it’s very possible to slip into his paranoid, me-first shoes, wondering which bit player in his life might have it in for him. But Mungiu never gets specific about it, which is for the best — there’s enough plot here already, and the discussion about competition and the race to get out of Romania is laid on thick. For someone who knows little about the culture, it could be easily surmised that getting your kids into the right school is as cutthroat in small-town Romania as it is in Park Slope.
And there as here, competitively providing for your children requires king-size blinders, and a healthy dose of hypocrisy and neglect. Eliza may be a top-of-her-class student who wants for nothing, but the family is visibly broken even before the real disasters start raining down. It’s implied the attack on Eliza could have been prevented if Romeo had dropped her off closer to school instead of being in such a rush to see his mistress. There are volumes of injustices and broken promises at play before that first rock comes through the window, which, somewhat counterintuitively, keeps Mungiu’s film from feeling outright punishing. There’s more to say besides “life sucks” or “people are terrible” — he’s more interested in the collective wiling of societal pressures and corruption.
What’s more, the effort to salvage Eliza’s future is for naught; it’s clear as things wear on that she’d just as soon move to nearby Cluj with her motorcycle-instructor boyfriend and stay close to her friends. She hints at this early in the film, but Romeo brushes it off — of course she doesn’t want to stay at home, of course her friends don’t matter that much, she’s destined for greatness. It’s all a projection of course, but the desires of a bright teenage girl with her whole life ahead of her hardly matter when it comes to the pride and image of an aging philanderer with a gut. After all, she may be a smart girl, but he’s a nice man.