Whispers of conspiracy slink through the ragged town by the railroad tracks.
In a land of secret deals and illicit favors, where a man's conscience is bartered for and haggled over, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's new film, "Graduation," is a tale of a generation that brought down a tyrant only to watch decades of disillusionment and corruption seep into the lives of its children.
Nearly 30 years after the collapse of Communism, much of Eastern Europe runs on political chicanery and pliable morality. Mungiu has placed these burdens on the once sturdy shoulders of Dr. Romeo Aldea, who, to get his daughter out of Romania and into a British university, forsakes the virtues that underpin his pride. It is the diminishment of a man by a thousand nicks, a soul that rationalizes venial sins for the sake of his only child.
"Is it possible to stay a completely moral and ethical person in a country which is not always moral? I don't think so," said Mungiu, whose film opens in Los Angeles on Friday. "The conclusion of [Aldea] is that the only way you can avoid feeling guilt at some point is to prevent your children from stepping inside this chain of complicity. Once you've made that first major compromise, there's no way out."
Amid lulling arias and stray dogs, "Graduation," like Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", a story of friendship and abortion that won the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, is a meditation on a nation that went from the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu to the fleeting ebullience and deeper cruelties of capitalism. The director's realism examines the grand and the miniature, the swift and the slow, so that life's intimacies, from a poured drink to a morning tryst, appear like meticulous paintings.
Mungiu said his plots — he rarely edits within a scene — unfold "like a diary in a very short period of one character." He added: "You have to include the dead moments that you meet in life. You have to live through all of them."
His acclaimed subtlety and minimalism are similar to that of fellow Romanian director Cristi Puiu, whose recent "Sieranevada" explored post-communist life during a wake after a father's death in a cramped apartment. The filmmakers' unflinching, patient styles neither condemn nor condone but, instead, examine a fortysomething generation trying to reconcile the sins of the past, the compromises of the present and the uncertainty of the future. Heroes and villains are not grand or outsized; they are neighbors and relatives trying to get by.
Throughout much of Eastern Europe, especially in the years immediately after the Berlin Wall fell, questions resounded over politics, religion, collaborators, opportunists and recrimination. The aspiration was to race toward the West. But the consequences of that change — and of the past that forced it — have shaped the work of many writers, artists and directors looking to make sense of a political system that defined much of 20th century. The dilemma of shattered ideals is evident in "Sieranevada" when a communist loyalist tells her granddaughter: "I'm sorry, but history isn't made out of presumptions."
"Graduation" is opening in the U.S. after mass anti-corruption rallies shook Bucharest, the Romanian capital. The country in recent years has made progress in attempting to stem graft and fraud. But corruption persists, even as the economy has grown and Romania has joined the European Union. That pervasive heritage — on large and petty scales — shapes the hushed asides and knowing winks that ripple through Mungiu's film.
They torment Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a doctor in a Transylvanian town desperate for his daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), to pass her final tests to qualify for a scholarship to study in Britain. Distant from his wife, unable to meet the emotional needs of his lover, Aldea is determined that Eliza will escape her country's legacy, even if that means betraying what's left of his honor and integrity. He seeks favors and colludes with a police officer and a politician to fix her exam scores.
"This is the world we live in," Aldea says with the disenchantment of a man about to forsake another piece of himself. "Sometimes, we need to fight using their weapons." He tells his daughter: "When you're in Kensington Gardens [in London], with all those squirrels chasing you, the world here will seem so far away, you'll wonder if it was real."
A parent's yearning to have his child succeed is universal. The odds against that in countries such as Romania, to say nothing of Syria or South Sudan, are steeper, creating equivocations that over time become so inured that they break the spirit. Aldea, like many of Mungiu's generation, is a man between two worlds, tainted by the residue of dysfunction and too old to enjoy whatever national revitalization the future may bring.
"The film tries to place a mirror in front of the audience," the director said. "The aim of this kind of cinema is to help the audience learn more and consider their own lives and compromises."
Even the communist bloc architecture of Aldea's town casts uninspiring shadows. Decency here is as muddied as the landscape. Dogs prowl. Rocks crash through windows. His daughter is attacked and almost raped. She too is at a precipice. Will she become an iteration of her father and scheme to get ahead? Or will she find another way? The bonds of their relationship are in flux as Aldea darts around in a panic that offers sparse repose, except for the arias playing on his car radio.
"For people of my generation, it's too late to expect a dramatic change during the span of your life. We're never going to become Germany or Denmark," Mungiu said. "The problem is about our children. What are you going to tell your children now? Are you going to encourage them to stay and fight as you did, hoping they can change the things you couldn't? Or … will they fly wherever they want and work wherever they want.
"What's the future of this generation in this country and in the world? Are they going to be more moral than us?"