REVIEW: Graduation

15 05 2017

It’s only natural for parents to wish that their children fare better than they do, but I would be genuinely curious to see how many would act with the vigor of Adrian Titieni’s Romeo in “Graduation” to ensure such a thing. Locked in a loveless marriage, trapped in a dead-end romantic affair and bored professionally, Romeo is Romania’s equivalent of a tiger father to his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus). She has the opportunity to spend her collegiate years on scholarship in the “more civilized” United Kingdom pending a passing grade on her final exams, and he will do everything in his power to ensure she escapes the mire of their native country.

Except, on the day before the test, a stranger batters Eliza on the way to school and wounds her as he attempts rape. For whatever arcane reason, the authorities simply cannot accommodate her at a later date, so Eliza must take the multi-part exam with her writing hand severely injured. Faced with the threat of his daughter’s escape route vanishing, Romeo decides to take independent measures to ensure she passes.

Romeo and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) are no stranger to rigged systems that present themselves as fair. After all, they fled the Communist regime in Romania and returned to raise a child in a post-Soviet Bloc nation. But Eliza comes from a generation that only knows democracy, and she does not take kindly to knowing fingers are on the scale for her benefit. This divide over who sets the rules and when those rules are enforced proves a fascinating fissure to observe throughout “Graduation” as it increasingly isolates Romeo from his family and community.

Mungiu, in classic Romanian New Wave fashion, takes his time delivering the audience to such realizations. Two hours of wading through such intense moral morass is a bit much, especially given the time spent on a subplot of broken glass on Romeo’s belongings. These incidents amount to little more than a red herring, a projection of Romeo’s fretting over the precariousness of his situation. They’re a bit at odds with the studied naturalism of the film – which, for the record, feels a bit de rigeur for Mungiu by now. B /

F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 5, 2016)

5 05 2016

the teBeyond the HillsMay has arrived, which means the lineup for the Cannes Film Festival is officially out. Each year, the official selection provides an extra impetus for me to catch up with the work of world filmmakers whose previous features might have eluded me. Admittedly, I am still working my way through the lineup from the years I attended the festival. Whoops.

In a festival environment, small factors often influence viewing choices. I chose not to see Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills” because of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, among other reasons. Unless I have a compelling reasons to see a movie of such sprawl, I find it hard to justify seeing one long movie when I might be able to see two shorter ones.

But wow – now I sure do wish I could have seen this stunning, gripping drama with the Cannes crowds instead of just watching it alone on Netflix. “Beyond the Hills” provides a breathtaking look at the deleterious effects of entrenched religious institutions on damaged individuals. Though Mungiu unfurls his story with a methodical pace, enough jaw-droppers occur that I despair not having the opportunity to experience them with others. I mourn that lost opportunity, but I praise the work now as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

As children, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) shared a great bond while stuck in an orphanage. They went their separate ways after growing up, with Voichita finding her calling as an Orthodox nun and Alina being called towards a life of vice in Germany. After hearing of her old friend’s troubles, Voichita brings Alina to the convent in a last-ditch effort to help. The gesture seems like common Christian decency, an application of the teachings of Jesus put in action.

Her outreach does not sit well with the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) who presides over the women, however. Alina represents not merely a basket case but a threat to their established order, one that can disrupt the continuity and community. “Beyond the Hills” primarily details the violent, perhaps even counterproductive, ends to which the monastery will go to preserve order – even at the cost of an individual. And meanwhile, Voichita remains caught in the crossfire, stuck between her pledged duties to an organization desperate to exercise power and her felt responsibilities to an old friend desperate for connection.

The tensions between an inward and outward looking faith are ones that I, as a person faith myself, grapple with constantly. So, fittingly, I found my allegiances torn and swapped throughout “Beyond the Hills.” Mungiu’s aesthetic matches the ever-changing tide; he employs more dynamic compositions than just a static camera observing the action from a fixed vantage point, a trademark of his work at the forefront of Romania’s New Wave. The film feels volatile and exciting even as it remains sparse and restrained. That’s no easy feat.