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Romania’s new wave Palme d’Or winner returns

Graduation is Cristian Mungiu’s fourth film – a compelling story of corruption, youth and escape

The moral conundrums of Cristian Mungiu’s films are tough, riveting and very real. In Graduation, the Romanian New Wave pioneer’s fourth feature, a father must reckon with the corruption of society. Does he navigate the crooked machinations? Or just allow his family to suffer silently?

Romeo (Adrian Titien) is a doctor with one wish: for his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguș), to earn a scholarship allowing her to study in the UK. But when Eliza is assaulted the night before a crucial exam, her results are poor, and Romeo is reluctantly aware the system can be manipulated. He does, after all, have control of the organ transport waiting list. Still, there’s more, including an impatient mistress, the possibility of a silent witness, and a rock smashing his car window. What exactly is going on?

Mungiu came to prominence in 2007 upon winning the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a nail-biter about a student forced into seeking an illegal abortion. In 2012, his lesbian exorcism thriller Beyond the Hills won Best Screenplay and Best Actress at Cannes. And at last year’s festival, Graduation earned him the Best Director prize. On his visit to London, Mungiu spoke to us about Romania’s black humour, the real-life corruption that inspired Graduation, and the moral duty of a filmmaker.

 

Why did you make a film about education? Or is it more about corruption?

Cristian Mungiu: It’s about education and compromising corruption. But for me, it’s primarily about realising that life is very different from what you imagined it would be. It’s about this question of evolution: how will things change if we keep educating children the same way?

The father desperately wants his daughter to leave Romania and study abroad, but she’s not that bothered. Is that a generational divide?

Cristian Mungiu: It’s a popular solution for families who can afford it. It’s a problem. You hope the next generation will have the energy to change what our generation couldn’t. But if these well-educated people are just leaving, that’s not much of a future. I’m part of the generation that decided to stay and change things. Things changed, but not as much as we expected.

“You hope the next generation will have the energy to change what our generation couldn’t” – Cristian Mungiu

How do the younger generation feel about their situation? Because they haven’t lived through the Communist period in Romania.

Cristian Mungiu: Younger people aren’t that different from how we were at their age. This film is based on true stories from recent years. There was a high school in Bucharest where students were cheating for their graduation exam, but the parents and teachers knew. A prosecutor started an investigation. The prime minister interfered and said, “What country is this when we’re taking children by bus to the police station to be interrogated?” It’s a habit that passes from generation to generation.

There’s a certain aesthetic associated with Romanian New Wave, and it’s very popular at the moment. But will a new visual style be needed at some point?

Cristian Mungiu: I think that moment is coming, to be honest (laughs). What should be the response? I don’t know. This isn’t just some style which is in fashion. It’s the result of lots of thinking. Cinema can be very manipulative. I work like this because it’s more honest and it respects a set of rules I impose upon myself.

I still believe I will make realistic films for a while. If I will keep working with one shot per scene, I don’t know. But I thought beforehand: what would be the new style I’d create? I was still so fond of letting moments express themselves without cutting, and I decided to keep on with it.

“This isn’t just some style which is in fashion. It’s the result of lots of thinking. Cinema can be very manipulative” – Cristian Mungiu

Maren Ade said Toni Erdmann is partly set in Romania because of your films. Can you see why? Is it the black humour?

Cristian Mungiu: Yes, I think so. Humour, for us, was a survival tool during the Communist regime. People would mock their own situation and make fun of their problems. With world cinema, you notice similarities between directors from very distant places. There is a special kind of black humour that travels from us. I have to say, the Romanian film community is very proud Toni Erdmann was shot there. They say, “It isn’t half Romanian, but it’s at least 10 per cent.”

You started out as a journalist. Do you see filmmaking as an extension of that profession? And do you feel a moral duty as a filmmaker?

Cristian Mungiu: When I start writing, I think: what’s the most important thing for me now? And I pick from a shortlist, and speak about an aspect I believe to be important to society at that moment. I spend so many years making a film, it’d feel awful to do something that anyone could do. We have short lives as filmmakers – I only make personal films.

In Graduation, Romeo seems to be a good person, but even he has a limit with what he’s up against.

Cristian Mungiu: This is why people leave. They conclude you can’t change things dramatically. There is progress, but not at the right speed. It’s not easy to say there are good people or bad people. It’s more complex. During the Communist times, people were fighting back, and they were trying to help each other. Because the state wasn’t fair to you, you weren’t fair to the state. It’s a habit that we preserved. You do whatever to solve the problem, because you know that rules and regulations can be ignored; there are always ways of solving things.

This is a modern dilemma that parents have today. What kind of future are you preparing for your children? If you prepare children so that they understand this, it’s a different kind of education. You tell them, “You can just leave. Forget what the law says; this is what you have to do.”