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Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” Lays Bare the Costs of Thriving in a Corrupt Society

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about corruption. That’s true despite the fact that Mungiu underplays the typical elements found in tales about this subject: You won’t find many fast-talking crooks, sinister cops or elaborate sting operations here. Or a looming sense of justice and judgment, or even tragedy. You’ll just find mostly good people doing what they think is right, and then the acute mess that they find themselves in.

Mungiu’s primary vessel for exploring this world is Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a respected Cluj physician and upstanding pillar of the community whose high-school-senior daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) has secured a conditional college scholarship to study in Britain; all she has to do is pass her final exams. But an attempted assault outside the school leaves her injured and shaken right before the day of her first test. Believing that an education in England — far from the despair and deception of daily life in Romania — is the girl’s best and only chance for a better life, Romeo finds himself becoming what he hates most: someone who tries to game the system.

But it happens slowly, without him quite realizing it. Romeo first has to convince the school officials to let the girl take her first exam with a cast on her hand. That violates the rules, as kids have been known to cheat using such devices. But Romeo is Romeo, he knows the right people, and he has a way of softly talking his way into things. Then, when Eliza’s grade on that test winds up unsatisfactory, his police captain friend (Vlad Ivanov, a face unnervingly familiar to anyone who’s seen Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) arranges for Romeo to talk to Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), a local bigwig who needs a liver transplant and who can arrange for the school authorities to give the girl the necessary grade; all Romeo has to do is put Bulai at the top of the liver transplant list.

Such a cursory description of the plot does no justice to the casual, organic way that Mungiu allows Romeo to consider forsaking his values — or at least what Romeo thinks are his values. He fancies himself an idealist, above deceit and graft until misfortune suddenly strikes his family. He reflects plaintively about how he and his wife Magda returned to Romania from abroad to try and make the country a better place. Driving through the city’s drab, desolate streets in his fancy sedan, listening to Baroque music, Romeo imagines himself in a cocoon of honesty, when in fact, it’s one of privilege. Not for nothing is one of the film’s earliest images a rock thrown against his windshield. We eventually realize that Graduation is partly about how people like Romeo have always benefited from cutting corners, from the insular security of their connections and their status.

At the same time, Mungiu refuses to condemn these characters. We sense throughout Graduation that what we’re watching is a way of operating that has insinuated itself into daily life because, unlike everything else, it works. Institutions are inadequate: Eliza’s assailant might be an escaped convict, so the law has already failed her; meanwhile, the school’s stringent policies are ineffective at dealing with a student’s very serious crisis. Romeo and his friends are merely taking advantage of the existing order of things. But what about those less fortunate — a group that includes Romeo’s own mistress, whose son needs a speech therapist but whom the good doctor, ever so certain of his rectitude, refuses to help?

Graduation is about relatively mundane occurrences, but as Romeo is pulled further and further from his moral certainty, the film becomes incredibly gripping and unsettling. Mungiu’s subtle visual style also enhances the suspense, plunging Romeo further into darkness as he falls deeper down the well. One evening, thinking he’s seen his daughter’s assailant on the street, he jumps out of a bus in pursuit of the man. Romeo runs into an empty slum, the night pitch black around him, and finds himself alone, out of breath and afraid. He looks around in bewilderment, like someone who’s experiencing night, solitude and uncertainty for perhaps the first time in his life. It’s an indelible image: a good man forced to confront his own fallen soul.

Graduation
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Sundance Selects
Opens April 7, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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A Potent Story of Kids On the Edge In Short Term 12

Like The Wire or Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s oeuvre, Short Term 12 is the kind of film that sounds agonizingly depressing on paper but mesmerizes onscreen. It’s a delicate yet passionate creation, modest in scope but almost overwhelming in its emotional intricacy, ambition, and resonance. Easily one of the best films so far this year, it’s a nearly perfect blend of pimple-faced naturalism, righteous moral fury, nuanced social insight, and unsentimental but devastating drama.

A glammed-down Brie Larson is luminous as Grace, a supervisor at a short-term foster-care facility, where she and three other idealistic but exhausted twentysomethings care for a handful of minors the county has yet to place. Sweetly sturdy Grace, gentle dreamboat Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), matter-of-fact Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz), and newbie Nate (Rami Malek) have fascinatingly fluid roles at Short Term 12, smoothly switching from older sibling or camp counselor to orderly or bloodstain cleaner. Grace and her crew exercise firm control over their charges, some of whom cope better than others. But they’re hamstrung by the relative powerlessness of their low-status positions, forced to stand by while the kids’ lives are administered by well-meaning therapists and social workers whose knowledge is more academic than actual.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton elicits strong, unaffected performances from his child actors. The film focuses on two in particular: Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a 17-year-old terrified of aging out of foster care when his birthday arrives in a week, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a creative younger teen whose raccoon eyes and poses of studied rebellion cover up some serious bruising and scars. “I don’t really like wasting time on short-term relationships,” she announces on her first day, asking for help by pretending not to. Marcus and Jayden immediately demand sympathy not because they’re children, but because they’re such believable ones.

Grace is initially drawn to Jayden for the girl’s gift with a sketch pad and pencil, but as the film unclenches its fist, loosening its secrets, it’s clear the two have much more in common than doodling. Their similarities thrust Grace into psychological chaos and heroic action, and the traumas the characters have been so afraid to reveal aren’t reductive, as in so many other films where a childhood ordeal is flattened into an explanation for a grown-up’s heroic motivations or character flaws. Rather, the utterance—or even the acknowledgement—of these secrets provides an Aristotelian catharsis: It’s as curative for the audience as for the characters.

Jayden’s presence also forces Grace to deal with the long-term effects of her own abusive past—strongly hinted at early in the film, when she gives a hard, reflexive slap across the face to the colleague/secret boyfriend who climbs atop her one night for a bout of cuddly lovemaking. A surprise pregnancy amplifies Grace’s hopes and fears. As the shadows of the latter loom larger—and her abuser suddenly threatens nearer—her relationship and her sense of self unravel, just when she’s needed most by Jayden.

Short Term 12‘s greatest achievement is its ability to paint a double portrait of abuse—a larger exploration of the enduring effects of violent trauma, as well as an intimate depiction of a damaged but hopeful and persevering individual. It’s a bold and sensitive vision—and one that shouldn’t be missed.

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The Urgent Beyond the Hills Reveals A Crisis of Faith

The hills of Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri) are a barren canvas of straw grass and leafless trees, framed by a winter’s sky. Nothing, it would seem, can grow here—save for fanatical faith. It is on this barren land that a priest known as Papa (Valeriu Andriuta) has gathered his flock of novitiates in an Orthodox convent named New Hill, a series of low, drafty buildings that seem to have been erected in conscious defiance of the surroundings, held together by little more than true belief. Though a town looms in the near distance, inside New Hill there is no electricity, water is drawn from a well, and life is lived much as it was centuries ago. “Cloistered” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Based on real events that occurred in
Romania’s Moldova region in 2005 and were subsequently documented by author Tatiana Niculescu Bran in two fact-based novels, Beyond the Hills is about what happens when an outsider stirs the air like that Heisenbergian particle that, once detected, cannot remain unchanged. The visitor, Alina (Cristina Flutur), is the childhood friend of one of Papa’s disciples, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). Now in their twenties, the women grew up together in the local orphanage, where the fierce Alina protected the more delicate Voichita from boys’ hormones and other, more insidious threats to her virtue. The exact nature of the indignities they suffered is something Mungiu’s film never spells out, much as it trusts that we can plainly see theirs is a relationship that goes beyond sisterly friendship.

Indeed, Alina arrives with train tickets in hand, ready to whisk Voichita to Germany and a life as guest workers on a cruise ship. Except Voichita appears in no hurry to leave—if she does, she tells Alina, Papa will never take her back. Instead, she entreats her friend to stay, and to let God into her heart too. And for a brief moment, it appears that Alina has chosen this path, until she begins acting strangely possessive—or maybe just possessed. It’s an
agonizing tour de force, in which
Flutur and Stratan (both screen newcomers) evince an acutely convincing bond—one a pious bride of Jesus, the other merely a jilted bride.

Mungiu, who drew international attention in 2007 with his second feature, the Ceausescu-era abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, has a deceptively simple style: Working again with the brilliant cinematographer Oleg Mutu, he shoots in long, unbroken takes that create a sense of events unfolding in real time, untainted by editorial manipulations. The camera itself is handheld but steady, ready to follow the actors wherever they go but always settling on careful, balanced compositions, some of which feature as many as a dozen characters masterfully arranged across the wide-screen frame to recall the frescos of Ghirlandaio and Da Vinci in their austere, black-habited grandeur.

If 4 Months became known as the “Romanian abortion movie,” then Mungiu’s latest may be equally doomed to shorthand as the “Romanian exorcism movie,” though it’s a term Beyond the Hills itself never invokes. Nor are there any levitation effects, spinning heads, or growling demonic voices. In contrast to the cinema’s most famous exorcism, the one that consumes most of Mungiu’s third act is a strictly artisanal affair, with a troubled young woman bound to a makeshift stretcher (though some will later call it a crucifix) and read the prayers intended to free her of the demons that haunt her, be they supernatural or merely personal.

It would be easy for Beyond the Hills to wag a shaming finger at the Orthodox Church for practices that will strike many as cruel, retrograde, and mired in superstition. But if anything, Mungiu affords the Church a grudging respect and reserves its anger for a society rife with institutional failure (a constant theme in the new Romanian cinema), leaving so many women with no place else to turn. (In God, Voichita remarks, she has found the path on which she will never be alone.) The haunting final image suggests how quickly such stories can be lost, but for novels like Bran’s and movies like this—which makes Beyond the Hills, above all else, a powerful and necessary act of reclamation.

 

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Celebrating the Romanian New Wave at Lincoln Center

What’s now referred to as the Romanian New Wave announced itself loudest with Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which in 2007 won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The laurel wasn’t exactly unprecedented—at least one Romanian film had received a major award at the festival each of the two years prior—but it nevertheless felt definitive. Deeply rooted in the nearly quarter-century (1965 to 1989) reign of Nicolae Ceausescu as its authoritarian dictator and characterized by minimalist staging and deadpan black humor, the central European nation’s recent contributions to the world of film have been good or great with almost alarming frequency. “Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual series co-sponsored by the Romanian Film Initiative, begins this Thursday with Tudor Giurgiu’s Of Snails and Men and runs for exactly a week. In addition to a dozen or so other recent works, it also features a shorts program and a retrospective devoted to Alexandru Tatos.

Giurgiu’s film is a good deal less somber than most Romanian exports to make it stateside. But its comic tone shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of seriousness: Set against the backdrop of Michael Jackson’s first and only visit to Romania in the early 1990s, it concerns a group of factory workers at a shuttered car plant who scheme to take over the factory by donating sperm en masse. Entwined in its comic narrative is a genuinely felt sense of loss and fear; Giurgiu does take the dark humor so often embedded into his countrymen’s films and, as Corneliu Porumboiu did with 2007’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, quietly moves it to the fore.

Radu Gabrea’s Three Days till Christmas acts as a sort of companion piece to last year’s stunning The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu. Gabrea presents an at times farcical take on the dead-and-deposed dictator that highlights the man’s absurdity via a re-enactment of his last days interspersed with archival footage and talking-head interviews. It offers few rewards to anyone who has seen Ujica’s film, but works well enough as a genre mash-up holding all parties responsible.

The biggest draw is still likely to be Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, which tells of a young nun and her wayward, overly dependent friend and closes the series next Wednesday night. (It isn’t the only monastic offering on display; Anca Hirte’s Teodora Sinner, a decidedly more modest and lo-fi take on the lives of nuns, screens Sunday and Wednesday.) Mungiu, whose follow-up this is to 4 Months, is, along with Cristi Puiu, one of the Romanian New Wave’s primary standard-bearers; his latest won two more awards—for its screenplay and two lead actresses—at Cannes just this May. Long, deliberately paced, and set on a remote monastery, it’s something like the archetypal Romanian film: so quietly tense on so many levels that its seemingly placid surface seems poised to shatter at a moment’s notice. Waiting for that to happen (or not happen) proves far more exhilarating than exhausting.

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The Good Old Days: Tales From the Golden Age and “Ostalgia”

The 1990s coinage ostalgie, which combines the German words for “east” and “nostalgia,” describes a particular sort of longing. Ostalgie is not so much a yearning for the vanished Communist past as it is an adult fascination with the youthful, formative reality lost, save to memory, in the social upheaval that came with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

A childhood is a childhood, no matter where it occurs. Still, as suggested both by the Romanian movie ironically titled Tales From the Golden Age and “Ostalgia,” the New Museum’ s current five-floor exhibit pondering the ways in which a wide range of East European artists coped with Communism (or its absence), a personal history can also be the history of one’ s times.

Tales from the Golden Age, an anthology film organized, written, and co-directed by Cristian Mungiu (best known for his 2007 abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), addresses ostalgie in its Romanian form. Each of its six essentially comic episodes dramatizes an urban legend from the 1980s, the worst period (and self-described “golden age”) of Nicolae Ceausescu’ s Communist dictatorship, as well as the decade in which Mungiu and the four novice directors who work with him here were in or about to enter their teens. Bracketed by the Ceausescu anthem, the movie recalls a social disaster in painstaking detail and with a measure of ambivalent love.

In retrospect, the most obvious thing about Ceausescu’ s golden age was its fraudulence. Like classic socialist realism, but even more so, Romania’ s official culture trafficked in the beautiful lie and pretended it was truth—the representation of current social reality as airbrushed by authority. The movie’ s opening tales show Romania as a golden facade: “The Legend of the Official Visit” (in which a rural town, coincidentally hosting a traveling carnival, must be hastily “improved” in advance of a government motorcade that never arrives) and “The Legend of the Party Photographer” (which details the official media’ s panicky, foredoomed attempt to reconcile the height differential between Ceausescu and visiting French premier Giscard d’Estaing).

Less finely tuned (and not as funny), Tales‘ third episode, “The Legend of the Zealous Activist,” is a labored account of a gung-ho Party organizer (looking not unlike Albert Brooks) hoisted on his petard in an attempt to eradicate rural illiteracy. Although gumming the movie’ s momentum, the episode does serve to introduce the milieu of shortages, overcrowding, schemes, bribes, and barter economics that will characterize the remaining tales. Everybody from primary-school kids to cops is involved in petty black marketeering in “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” (an episode further enlivened by the presence of a large pig in a small apartment).

Although Mungiu only directed two episodes, Tales has a strong continuity of style and sensibility (the look is subtly cartoonish, the humor broad yet deadpan). Although individual segments are not credited, it was assumed when the movie screened at Cannes in 2009 that Mungiu’s were the more nuanced and relatively lengthy final segments. “The Legend of the Air Sellers” and “The Legend of the Chicken Driver” both concern scams. In “Air Sellers,” a teenaged girl, much impressed by Bonnie and Clyde (shown at a party on VHS), joins forces with a slightly older guy to “rob” the people of their redeemable glass bottles. The final tale, “Chicken Driver,” which ends with its protagonist in jail, is the subtlest and most melancholy episode, in which a love-starved trucker opens a forbidden door (in the back of his van) and, thanks to the modest treasure he discovers there, finds himself briefly more attractive than he could have imagined.

In the rampant dishonesty and brutal deprivation of the golden age, even the most plodding, least imaginative Romanians had to steal to survive. Sardonic as it may be, Tales From the Golden Age is basically affirmative—its true subject is resilience. Romania suffered under a regime of dangerous stupidity. Drawing on popular memory, Mungiu has orchestrated a contribution to local folklore, a suite of stories in which those rendered witless by oppression were compelled by circumstance to live off their wits.

Dense and provocative, “Ostalgia” is richly “underground”—an array of unmarketable underdog art, infused with forbidden impulses, all, however obsessively private, unavoidably political. While some works suggest the liberated libido of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, the exhibit as a whole is a kind of Soviet equivalent of the social disgust articulated by Ken Jacobs’s Star Spangled to Death.

The most ambitious pieces are serial in nature—Nikolay Bakharev’s candid photos of Moscow sunbathers and teenaged Evgenij Kozlov’s sweetly pornographic drawings of the Young Pioneers in his collective apartment—are forms of crypto-cinema. Movies are crucial to the exhibit. Jonas Mekas’s six-track, four-hour-plus Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2008)—a compilation of TV news reports that the Lithuanian filmmaker recorded between 1989 and 1991 off of his home TV screen in New York— easily fits into this orchestrated chaos. Some works document performances (Romanian performance artist Ion Grigorescu’s psychodramatic bouts of naked shadowboxing or his Lithuanian colleague Andris Grinsbergs’s alfresco pagan rituals), but more than a few are films or videos in their own right.

Made for Hungary’ s experimental Bela Bálazs Studio, Tibor Hajas’s Self Fashion Show (1976)—in which a cross section of passersby are persuaded to pose for the camera—is a proletarianized version of Warhol screen tests or a diminished take on August Sander’s photo-project “People of the 20th Century.” The film was shot silent but Hajas added a voiceover, at once reassuring and authoritarian, which addresses his stolid subjects as well as the public: “You don’t need to follow alien patterns . . . . You are free . . . . There are no rules . . . . You are the model of your own life . . . . You are a star.”

Giving voice to the onetime proponents of an obsolete philosophy, British video artist Phil Collins’s 2010 marxism today (prologue) interviews several middle-aged former East German women who, having made their careers as teachers of Marxist-Leninist economics, were compelled, after unification, to live with the notion that, as one puts it, “your entire life was just a mistake.” Still, all managed to apply Marxist education to the capitalist world. One retrained as a social worker, while another worked for a computer dating service, and the third (who had written her dissertation on neoliberal economic theory) smoothly transitioned to investment banking.

Olga Egorova makes expert use of Marxist rhetoric in her sad and hilarious Partisan Songspiel (2009). A quartet of Serbia’ s newly oppressed (given archetypal status as Disabled Veteran, Romany Woman, Lesbian, and Worker) stage a self-dramatizing performance at the foot of a pedestal upon which their disdainful new oppressors (entrepreneurs, bankers, neoliberal academics) perch. There’ s an absurd, tragic dimension found here that is missing from Mungiu’s film—perhaps because, unlike Romania, no-longer-extant Yugoslavia had a noble anti-fascist past, a truly lost golden age.