"Graduation," a film of gripping moral suspense from the Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu, opens with a rock being hurled through the window of a middle-aged doctor named Romeo (Adrian Titieni). It is the first of several attacks that take place over the course of the movie, including a second act of vandalism and an attempted sexual assault, though Mungiu declines to specify whether these crimes are the work of one perpetrator or many. His purpose here is not to identify the guilty (which would take a while), but rather to establish an atmosphere of ambiguous unease.
Bleak, naturalistic and flawlessly acted, "Graduation" distills the mood and moral decay of a place whose gray skies and nondescript housing blocks feel like permanent reminders of its dark history. Unlike Mungiu's 2007 masterpiece, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which unfolded in the final days of Nicolae Ceausescu's Communist dictatorship, the new film is set in the present, but the past continues to cast a long shadow. A sense of desperation, mostly venal but sometimes violent, seems to hover in the very air these men and women breathe.
And while Romeo is a mild-mannered, outwardly respectable contributor to society, his own sins — far more than those committed against him and his family — are what seem to interest the movie most. "I have this feeling someone's following me," he says, and that someone might as well be the filmmaker himself, whose hyper-alert camera stays fixed on the good (and sometimes not-so-good) doctor as he navigates a labyrinth of personal and professional corruption.
The drama is set in motion when his teenage daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus), fends off a would-be rapist on her way to school one morning — a senseless attack that disturbs Romeo for reasons beyond the initial shock and lingering trauma. Eliza is about to take the final exams that could secure her a scholarship to Cambridge, and
Their suspicions turn out to be thoroughly justified, not because Eliza is a cheater but because just about everyone else is. Over the course of two sharply plotted, grimly absorbing hours, "Graduation" becomes a steady accrual of petty vices, under-the-table exchanges and quiet betrayals. Some of these have been happening for a while, like Romeo's affair with a single mother, Sandra (Malina Manovici) — a detail foreshadowed here by his chilly estrangement from his long-suffering wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar).
The love that Romeo and Magda might have once felt for one another — perhaps before they returned to Romania from exile in 1991, hoping for a better life post-Communism — has long since been displaced entirely onto their daughter, along with what remains of their hopes and dreams. That Eliza might escape this dreadful place is all that matters to Romeo, even if it means calling in favors with an old friend at the police station (Vlad Ivanov), a tight-lipped exam board official (Gelu Colceag) and an ailing politician (Petre Ciubotaru) who might benefit from his professional attention.
Romeo, like some of his conspirators, tries to reassure himself that these machinations are necessary, a last-minute deviation from an otherwise strict ethical code that he prides himself on upholding. But "Graduation" gives the lie to such self-serving reassurances. No less than "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which similarly used a compressed time frame to shed light on a condition of long-term malaise, this is a movie about the moral cost of survival — the negotiations and compromises that each character must continually make with others, and with his or her own conscience.
Mungiu, who shared the directing prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival (with Olivier Assayas for "Personal Shopper"), is a master of concentration. Working for the first time with the cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru, the director invests his characters' mundane conversations with a hushed, almost conspiratorial intensity. At its best, Mungiu's style achieves the clarity of the confessional: His characters may deflect and dissemble, but the camera, with its restless following movements and unblinking long takes, gives them no room to hide.
At times Titieni, with his fine-grained Everyman schlumpiness, brings to mind Olivier Gourmet, the great Belgian actor often cast in the restless, relentlessly compassionate films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (who happen to be credited among "Graduation's" co-producers). But Romeo's failings are held in check, and to some extent corrected, by Eliza, a sensitive child who finds herself caught between obedience, disillusionment and her own desire for freedom — including the freedom to continue seeing her boyfriend, Marius (Rares Andrici), whom Romeo can't abide.
Art-house audiences may recall the gifted Dragus as one of the young children in "The White Ribbon," Michael Haneke's 2009 portrait of a pre-World War I town in the grip of an eerily pervasive evil. There is something of Haneke's steely observation in "Graduation," but there is also a warmer, more hopeful vision of humanity — a grace born of the film's toughness and clarity of vision. Who threw that rock seems less important, finally, than the fact that someone has finally let the light in.
MPAA rating: R, for some language
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theatre, Los Angeles