It seems there is no benefit to trodding the moral high road in this slowly unfolding drama from Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days). Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a doctor in a smallish town, has high hopes for his teenage daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). She has won a scholarship to a U.K. university, and needs only to sit the perfunctory final exams. But the day before the test, Eliza is sexually assaulted, and the resulting trauma (including a sprained wrist) raises concerns about her ability to do well on the exam.
But the police detective knows someone on the exam board, and also his own relative needs moved up the transplant list, and … well, it’s just doing favors among friends, right? Romeo, whose own life is in a bit of a shambles, not least because he stuck around this backward burg, is deeply motivated to see his only child succeed, i.e. leave for opportunity abroad. So despite his aversion to the process, he capitulates, entering the roundelay of back-scratching, petty bribery and corruption. Even worse, he is forced to include Eliza in the scheming, perhaps forfeiting his hope of keeping her untainted by the system’s grime.
Is there some cold comfort in accepting that it’s all inevitable? Nearly every character in Graduation winds up confronting binary, black-or-white, yes-or-no choices that never quite address the myriad grays endemic in the system: When life is perpetually unfair, shouldn’t you take any advantage? It’s a quietly devastating portrait of good intentions unraveling in the face of systemic corruption.