MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2017
Genre: Drama, Foreign Director: Cristian Mungiu

I think Chidi from the TV show “The Good Place” would appreciate this film, though it might give him anxiety. From Romanian director Christian Mungiu (4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days; Beyond the Hills) Graduation elicits apt comparisons to both Haneke and the Dardennes in its ethical complexity and blistering look at systemic injustice via an inspection of one family’s moral compromises. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things, which raises important questions about those deceivingly simple categories of “good” and “bad.” In one late scene, after being scolded for throwing rocks at a kid who cut in line, a young boy asks an adult how he’s *supposed* to behave. A relatively straightforward question–what does it mean to be good?–proves very difficult to answer in a system which is inherently broken. If every cultural normal behavior involves cheating, lying, under-the-table deals, and looking the other way, how is one to survive in such a place? Thus, Chidi’s frustration.

“People should help other people,” a mafioso-like character tells Romeo as he offers his help to break the law. These shady deals appear to be just part of the cultural milieu; immorality is normal. Romeo is a doctor–a good vocation–who just wants his daughter Eliza to thrive. His plan has been to give her the best opportunities, the best tutors, the most chances to attend a prestigious university somewhere (anywhere!) else. And his plan so far has worked–at age 18, she has a full scholarship to study psychology at Cambridge. She only needs to pass her final exams with a decent grade and the plan will succeed. The day before her first exam, an assault on Eliza leaves her shaken, her entire future now in jeopardy. The education system won’t let her retake or reschedule the tests–it’s frustratingly all or nothing. The situation leaves Romeo wondering how far he has to go to make sure Eliza is given the chance he believes she deserves. A few phone calls to the right people, a few promises made, and Eliza needn’t worry.

In one of the early scenes in Graduation, a brick is thrown through the window of Romeo’s home, and the culprit escapes unknown. It’s a revealing moment, as Romeo’s reality is one where unexpected tragedy happens and the entire system feels like a tottering tower of bricks ready to come crashing down at any moment. His friend, the local police chief, puts Romeo in touch with the right person to cheat the education system and make sure Eliza gets the grade she needs. In return, Romeo the good doctor might be willing to bump someone up to the tope of the organ donor’s list. He’s saving a life, and saving his daughter’s future. What’s the harm in that? Police officers, doctors, teachers, parents–these are societal roles we should be able to trust as morally upright. When their choices are revealed as fallible (at best) or vicious (at worst), our worlds shatter. Yet everyone–and I mean everyone–in the post-Soviet world of Graduation has dirt on his or her hands. All have sinned and fallen short. This is a world immersed in grey: concrete and clouds and a murky ethical fog. Mungiu films this world with a starkness in lighting and composition–think daylight in winter or fluorescent office lighting–combined with a harsh realism in form and performances. By the film’s conclusion, we feel what it’s like to exist in this world, trying to navigate the difficult choices and relational complications. The ripple effects of personal moral decisions reveal their power.

Graduation resists easy resolutions or satisfying conclusions. It’s a cinematic moral conundrum, raising numerous questions and answering very few of them. Perhaps I was mistaken in my initial assessment; the moral morass of Graduation is the Bad Place for Chidi. The thing is, these morasses exist. Such cinema points us back to reality and forces us to wrestle with the complex questions of What kind of a person am I?, and What society are we becoming? The system is tottering. The brick has been thrown through the window. What shall we do now?

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