Romeo (Adrian Titienti) is a Romanian doctor who lives on an estate that he would very much like his teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) to be able to move out of. The only way she can do that is to graduate from her school exams with a strong enough set of grades to be eligible for admittance to Cambridge University, which is Romeo's dream for his beloved offspring, but the day she is supposed to head off for school and take the tests, somebody throws a stone through a window of their house. He is understandably troubled by this and cannot immediately work out the culprit, but Eliza is concentrating on her studies and will not waver. That is until an incident on the drive there throws everything into turmoil...
The generation gap was not a new premise for a family drama, but director Cristian Mungiu was speaking to something traditional in Romanian families which would be universal, you assume, to anyone who chose to watch Graduation, or Bacalaureat as it was originally named. That was the hope that the younger generation would have a better life than the older one, we are told that society is advancing all the time after all, and that optimism is what keeps most people going even in the darkest of days, that whatever is happening now, the good bits will endure and the bad bits will improve. What this did was throw that certainty into doubt, thanks to an acknowledgement that it simply wasn't true.
This was not to say that there were no chances for things to get better, it's just that with the fall of Communism in Romania you took away from this film a sense that after the totalitarian regime was toppled, it was expected that all the brutality and corruption that accompanied the past was not going to continue into the future, and yet here we were with Romeo (who was not as decent has he seems to believe, stringing along a teacher mistress for instance) encouraging his daughter to cheat in her exams. He has his reasons for this, and they are down to an incident of violence: Eliza was attacked and almost raped on the walk to school, and as a result is not exactly feeling up for her exams. Quite why she could not have deferred the matter until she was in a better state of mind was left unexplored.
Presumably it was down to the possibility that her schoolfriends could tell her the answers, though we are told often how bright she is and knew all the answers anyway since she is a keen student, but she is wearing a bandage on her arm after the assault and that is not allowed in the exam room as it could be the hiding place for cheats and tips written inside. Something has to be done, and Romeo is growing increasingly distracted by this, to the extent that he tries to weigh the outcome in his and his daughter's favour, basically by using cheats that she would never have dreamed of herself, persuading officials to turn a blind eye to her condition and potential for messing up and allowing her the sufficient levels of grades. We understand that this was the sort of corruption that Romanians at the dawn of a supposed new age for their nation were hoping had been put behind them, and yet here we were with it present and incorrect still.
Mungiu said his film was less about corruption, however, and more about compromise, that realisation the present and indeed the future were going to be so informed by what had gone before that citizens were forced to negotiate a middle ground between the old way and that perhaps naïve hope of improvement, all of which was placed on the shoulders of a younger generation who may not be up to that potentially crushing responsibility. If this is sounding heavy, it certainly looked that way, with the cinematography in a washed out palate of blues, greys and browns, lending an oppressive atmosphere as Eliza is not so much tempted to cheat, but forced into it by her well-meaning father who is allowing his dread that she will not escape to cloud his mind. That Graduation did work up to a final note of promise was surprising after it had been so down on its characters, but that did arrive right at the very last shot, and the rest has been a sobering, "Don't end up like this" warning from those who had been making concessions that would go against their faltering consciences.
[Curzon's DVD has a chat with the director and the trailer as extras.]