The Romanian New Wave is perhaps the most exciting and important subgenre to have emerged in the modern era of cinema. Spurred on by a discontent with Romania’s failure to move on from the nepotistic and corrupt era of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, filmmakers such as Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) and Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) have aimed to shine a light on the darkest days of Romania’s Communist existence, and also on the entrenched societal pitfalls that have yet to be done away with. Mungiu’s new film Bacalaureat (Graduation) tells the story of a husband and father Romeo doing everything he can to get his daughter Eliza into college after her future is put in jeopardy by a horrific assault. Romeo resorts to exploiting a system of corruption that has existed since the fall of the Communist bloc, a system which he repeatedly insists he plays no part in and that he claims he wishes didn’t exist; this hypocrisy is symptomatic of the problems of modern Romanian society highlighted by the New Wave.
After being assaulted across the road from school, Eliza learns that she has fractured her arm. Concerned that this will affect her performance in a series of written exams she needs to ace in order to fulfil the requirements of a scholarship offer from Britain, her father uses all of the influence his position as a doctor affords him to ensure that she will be given the grade that she needs, regardless of whether or not her performance is up to par. This leads to inevitable trouble with the authorities, with his wife, with his lover and eventually with Eliza herself, and the audience is left with the feeling that resistance to the oppressive alienation and dehumanisation systems of power and authority is totally futile. It is clear that using the system to his advantage, as everyone in a position of power or privilege has done, is the only way that Romeo can help Eliza to get to where the audience is in no doubt she belongs, and yet when he does so he falls foul of the system anyway. In this, the film is reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief, an Italian Neorealist drama with many of the precursors of the Romanian New Wave subgenre and a similar focus on the downtrodden and the individuals who have been left behind as everyone has fought their way to the top.
Two of the most significant features of both movements are minimalism and realism, stylistic ploys which make Graduation feel as though is that it could well be a documentary. The acting from Adrian Titieni, Maria-Victoria Dragus and the rest of the cast is naturalistic, as is the lighting and set design, where possible, and indeed this is the greatest strength of Mungiu’s film. This is what makes the hardships of the central characters so affecting, and the systemic walls they run up against so enraging. It is also what makes films like Graduation and, even more so, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days so harrowing; the audience knows that these situations, while fiction, are not pulled from Mungiu’s imagination. Rather they are problems which people in Romania, and around the world, face on a regular basis, problems which could well be solved if the people in positions of power had the whim to solve them. They are also problems, as the film shows, that ruin lives, and watching Romeo and Eliza as they go through such troubles is truly heartbreaking. Mungiu, perhaps the finest Romanian director of the current era, has yet again made a film of great import, and yet also somehow of great beauty.