How far would you go to get the best for your children? This is the question that director Cristian Mungiu explores in this Romanian movie about morality, corruption and compromise.

Time: 127 mins
Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is a doctor, whose daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) has been offered a scholarship to a UK university. She is a bright student, averaging 95% in her exams so far. But on her way to school one day, she is attacked and almost raped, and she is in no state to score well in the remaining exams.

Having escaped from Romania and regretted returning, Romeo is desperate for her to go to England to escape the deprivation, crime and hopelessness of their town.

Its post-Ceausescu culture is still corrupt: if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Scratch the right backs and more can be gained.

A police friend has a contact in education, and they discuss ways to ensure that Eliza gets the grades she needs for England. After all, she’s a good student and this is only getting what is right for her. But she needs to join the scam and mark her paper in a particular way.

As part of this, Romeo is asked to push Deputy Mayor Bulai up the waiting list for a life-saving liver transplant.

When he awaits his operation, two men from the Special Prosecutor’s Office visit Romeo, wanting to talk to Bulai, whose phone calls they have taped. At this point, everything threatens to unravel for Romeo.

The movie is morally complex, with a series of trade-offs that the characters justify to themselves. “Being fair comes with a price, and I paid it,” he notes, as if that deposit is a credit he is entitled to draw on later. And when referring to someone to whom they grant a favour, they'll say, “He’s a good man,” as if the end beneficiary justifies the dodgy means.

While ostensibly commenting on Romanian post-communist culture, Mungiu, in a broad-but-shallow interview (this release’s only special feature, alongside the trailer) stresses that the film’s message about compromise is relevant “not only in Romania.”

With dour lighting, his trademark long shots and handheld cameras, Mungiu goes for everyday realism seen from the characters’ point of view. He suggests that other unspecified trade-offs have been made: twice Romeo’s home gets a stone through a window, and maybe the attack on Eliza was part of that. We never know.

He also explores the inter-generational tension between the idealism and optimism of youth and the world-weary resignation that time can bring on. “We’ve done our bit. We tried to change things,” Romeo comments, whereas Eliza is unhappy to be drawn into the murk surrounding her exam.

Romeo is having an affair with Sandra, a teacher at Eliza’s school, who doesn't want to lie about their relationship to her young son. Similarly, Eliza loses faith in her father for his deception and wants him to tell her mother, who is suffering from depression and plainly already knows.

Graduation draws you in to its shady world of guilt, deception, shame and hope; a well-plotted and multi-layered morality movie that Mungiu handles with great subtlety and sympathy.

Derek Walker