Graduation

LetterboxD review link

Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is one of my favorite European films of all time. It introduced me to Romanian cinema and I have been talking about it with friends since I saw it in 2007. I haven’t caught up with many other films from him but I was glad to see that Graduation made some “Best of 2017” lists.

Graduation is, on its face, a simple story about a devoted father (and failing husband) trying to do everything he can to help his daughter stay on track to have a better life than him. In so far as telling a story about the aspirations of billions of people, throughout history, and especially in post-colonial countries, we should see this kind of story way, way more often. The role of bribery, graft, corruption, and the struggle of the powerless in places like Romania, India, China, Egypt and Mexico are undersold as stories worth sharing. The kind of struggle and commitment displayed by the father, Romeo, for his daughter, Eliza reminded me of my own parents’ struggle to get me into a good school as a kid in 1990s, liberalizing, New Delhi. It is not unreasonable, for a family in this circumstance, to put all their hopes (and I mean like generationally put all their hopes) into something like an exam or graduation. It is, for many, the only reasonable option.

There’s a moment near the end of the film, when Romeo is walking with a small child (not his) and they gaze upon a giant mural in the school depicting scientists at work, ostensibly championing education as the highest virtue, the meritocratic way to success in society. Everyone buys into this idea. It’s a shared collective dream. Even though every one knows that there is no real meritocracy to benefit from. Romeo, at the end of a stressful week, and a heavy life as a father, husband, doctor that has left his body stiff and girthy enough to carry the weight, is too tired to give a rousing speech about the beneifts of working hard and becoming a doctor. He glances at the mural, sighs toward the kid, and they move on, both sullen and defeated.

In the next scene, at graduation, the students are called up to the stage. Given the context of my own graduation experience, in the West, I found it immediately remarkable that the students present the principal with a gift upon graduation, not the other way around. It is here that they start their journeys as new members of society, conditioned to give bribes and gifts. To give to those in power already, if they expect to get anything in return.

There’s a final detail in the movie that I noticed throughout. Romeo’s phone, and other phones, keep ringing but no one picks up. Romeo ignores calls. His daughter can’t be reached by phone in pivotal moments. Novelists and film-makers these days decry the difficulty of story telling in the age of cellphones and text messaging, but I found this a great use of the technology to make a point about communication. I hope other creators can find creative ways like this to make a film feel modern but not trapped by modernity.