Graduation **1/2

Cannes 2016 Best Director Cristian Mungiu takes a tiny hammer to a Romanian-language family drama that explores the unwieldy (and timely) topic of personal integrity. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu, with his newest film “Graduation,” taps lightly but consistently at the heavy steel of integrity. Nothing much seems to happen from one minute to the next, but somewhere in the second act you notice the film-smith has wrought a shape whose beginning is its end and whose end is its beginning.

The dilemma story in this realist-observational work centers on the stern father of a young woman finishing high school in the Transylvanian town of Victoria. Only a few days before she’s scheduled to take an S.A.T.-type exam, the daughter (Eliza) is injured. Now, the father (Romeo) must decide whether to covertly intervene in the grading of the test on Eliza’s behalf or simply risk her not scoring high enough to seal her Cambridge University acceptance.

Mungiu thus sets the stage for tests of morality. Mysterious situations inform the “situational ethics” of each character, and we’re asked to gauge why and how often they sell out. The overarching factor in their decisions, rather lazily symbolized by ubiquitous construction zones in town, is that Romania is changing, and not for the better. Romeo, 49, seeks distractions for himself and escape for Eliza, 18.

Early on, aesthetic questions arise. It’s not that all movies must have something pretty to look at—in any case, the opening shot is radiantly beautiful—it’s that the visual storytelling here is so stingy. Perhaps Mungiu overdid it with the grayness of life in Victoria. The apartment buildings, the pavement, Romeo’s wardrobe, his five-o-clock shadow, and especially his disposition possess a pallor that feels overbearing after 15 minutes.

All performances in the film are excellent, but the characters are under-developed, especially the main one. Romeo is a physician, so imagine following your own doctor as he tries to deal with family problems. That’s what “Graduation” feels like. He makes his rounds around town, always moderately pissed off, and can’t even muster a smile for his mistress! So, some unintentional comedy surfaces when his mother asks him at one point, “Why that face?” as he looks at her with the familiar scowl we’ve seen throughout the picture.

Mungiu relies heavily on dialogue to tell the story, and his brand of it isn’t particularly poetic. All the yammering inevitably leads to a whininess among the characters that’s off-putting. Also, for a movie set in a town rife with small-time corruption, it offers little in the way of tension, mood, or atmosphere.

Here we’re reminded of the great editor Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now” [1979]), whose film theory places “51 percent” priority on emotion. This movie shows people upset, crying, and angry, but seeing emotions and feeling them are two different things.

On the other hand, Mungiu deserves credit for distilling the dilemmas of honesty and integrity down to one pure, volatile essence. Also impressive is his doing so via Romeo, a mostly unsympathetic character.

“Graduation” does have its moments. The peal of church bells in a lovely shot of a busy playground, framed so it appears as the inner workings of some complex, human-powered machine. The likable old, corrupt bureaucrat who speaks in the raspy falsetto tones preferred by some Mafiosi.

It’s not too much to ask, though, for a moderate measure of liveliness, even in a work of gravelly realism. But Mungiu’s devout conservatism doesn’t permit it here. Still, his skillful positioning of the audience precisely between steely integrity and the hard place of success is alone worth the price of admission.

Andres Solar reviews new fare with an emphasis on art house and indies for Punch Drunk Movies. He feels that Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyer’s Club” [2013], “Wild” [2014]) is highly overrated, and that Texan director David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche” [2013], “Joe” [2014]) is highly underrated.

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