There’s a rare pleasure to settling down to watch a film and realising that the guiding hand behind it knows exactly what they’re doing. You can sit back in your seat and trust that the narrative is going to engage, inform, give you a pay-off.
Mungiu delivers exactly this in his latest film. It’s centred on a doctor, Romeo, who works in a small town, Cluj. Romeo doesn’t seem overly sympathetic at first. For a start he doesn’t look like most leading men. Rather, he looks like an ordinary middle-aged man. Overweight, specs, slightly hunched shoulders, careworn. We start off early knowing that he’s cheating on his wife and that he’s willing to bend the rules if he has to in order to ensure his daughter gets the grades she needs to study in the UK. It’s not a great starting position and Romeo has to earn the audience’s respect, gain our trust. Which, over the course of two hours, he does. The film probes and teases Romeo’s world, revealing how the small town he lives in functions, and the way in which these conditions shape a man or a woman’s morality. This is the other side of the social realism movie coin. Not the one that uses the lower classes as zoo fodder for the middle class cinema-going public, but one that carefully dissects the entirety of a community, pulling every loose string, slowly building a comprehensive portrayal of why the world it depicts functions like it does.
Adrian Titen, as Romeo, present in almost every scene, delivers a masterful performance. Then again, so does every other actor. There’s not a single off-key note. As the story gradually plays itself out, we come to understand not only where every character fits into the world of the film, but also what their hopes, dreams and fears are. None of this ever becomes laboured. Meticulously, the film describes how Cluj functions, and why Romeo’s destiny has to be that which it is. (As such the film acts as an interesting corollary to Toni Erdmann). There’s nothing spectacular about Graduation, it doesn’t have the fireworks of the director’s most famous film, but it’s a storyteller’s film and constantly engaging. Sometimes telling a plain story is the hardest thing to do well. Mungiu does it with aplomb.