Wednesday, February 15, 2017

202. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s film “Bacalaureat” (Graduation) (2016) (Romania), based on his own original screenplay: Fallouts of a father-daughter protective relationship within a contemporary corrupt East European social framework

The year 2016 saw the release of three very interesting award-winning films from three countries on two continents—all films on the same theme.  All three films deal with the father-daughter protective relationship under different patriarchal scenarios.  Daughter is an Iranian film and presents an interesting tale set in a society where the male members of the family protect their wives and their daughters until they are married with a ferocity that might surprise many in Western developed countries. Graduation is a Romanian film with another interesting tale where the father travels the proverbial extra mile to ensure his daughter benefits from a prized graduate education in a prestigious English university that will help her in her future career, a chance he himself never got in Communist and post-Communist worlds. The third film is Toni Erdmann from Germany where the daughter is older and busy trying to climb the corporate ladder without much thought for her father whose only true companion is reduced to his dog. 

In all three films, the role of the mother is marginal. The two European films clearly indicate that the women in Romania and Germany enjoy a greater freedom of action compared to the male-dominated Iran.  In two of the three films, the women have the last word. How interesting it is to find parallel tales emerging from three different communities that grapple with the same concerns almost simultaneously! All three underline love of a father for a daughter.  Interestingly, in all the three films the father does not have a son and only has a single daughter, all old enough to make their own decisions!!!

The father's (back to camera) concern as the daughter drives off
with her boyfriend

The Romanian film Graduation offers the viewer much to mull over beyond the obvious father-daughter relationship. It reflects the statement made by the director Mungiu in an interview to the Los Angeles Times reporter Steven Zeitchik in May 2016, “We live in a world and society that is not very moral but is made up of people who believe they are moral. I come from a country where everyone talks about corruption but they blame someone else.”

It is useful to evaluate the father figure in this film with this comment from its director in perspective. The father figure is a respected doctor and honest in his profession. Yet he is not honest to his wife as he is having an adulterous affair with a single mother. His wife does not know this but suspects his infidelity. The couple seem to be leading a frosty relationship within the small apartment, while the doctor claims to be an idealist. The doctor’s smart daughter is clever enough to be aware of the affair. 

So when the viewer of the film is shown someone throwing a stone at the doctor’s closed windowpane and smashing it, we know there is a message that all is not well.  And this happens before the good doctor stoops to do a corrupt act to help his only daughter in her future life. All through the film we never get to know who threw the stone and why it was thrown.

Later in the film, doctor’s daughter is sexually attacked on a forlorn stretch of land on the way to her place of study and she is able to fend off the attacker but is naturally mentally disturbed by the incident. Despite the father’s clout with police and a police line-up of suspects, the daughter fails to identify the attacker. Once again the viewer is flummoxed. Who attacked the daughter? Who threw the stone? Who is attacking the family? Or is it all a mistaken coincidence of unrelated events?

The very concerned parents are sitting
symbolically apart after the daughter
 is attacked in the hospital

The father who loves his daughter wants to ensure that the daughter gets the required grades to get the scholarship to UK. He is worried that the recent attack on his daughter could affect his daughter’s grades and his dream roadmap for his daughter would go up in smoke. He uses his network of acquaintances who he can tap to ensure his daughter’s examination answer papers fetch the required marks for the UK education.  In the post-Communist “if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours” scenario, the father ensures that his daughter would get the required marks if her papers are marked by his daughter with a symbol that the answer-paper evaluator will recognize as hers.

The father uses his contacts in the police force to identify
his daughter's (right)  attacker

Now if you have viewed the past works of director Mungiu you can expect an end that will surprise the viewer. That indeed is the case with Graduation. The end of the film surprise most viewers. Mungiu’s strength lies in how he ends his films. Graduation is no exception to that trend. It definitely jolted the Cannes film festival jury to bestow on him the Best Director award.  At the Chicago international film festival the jury again awarded the film the best screenplay award to Mungiu for “a narration that works with suspense as well as slice of life, creating a whodunit story structure while staying emotionally extremely close to the main character.”  And just as the father in the Iranian film Daughter won the best actor award at Moscow for the role of the father, the actor in the role of the father in Graduation won the Best Actor award at Chicago for the “ subtle yet hard-hitting impression he delivered of a father getting himself into corruption for which he pays a heavy price. His portrayal of his love for his daughter as well as his pushiness to control her future is extremely captivating” to quote the citation.

The police line-up does not help; the mysteries in the film remain unresolved

There are three exciting new/young directors making films in Romania: Cristian Mungiu, Calin Peter Netzer, and Cristi Puiu. None of them are likely to disappoint a discerning viewer as the power of each of their tales goes beyond boundaries of the stories. Each work will make you think.

P.S. Daughter and Graduation are both included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016. Mungiu’s previous work Beyond the Hills (2012), which won two major awards at Cannes, was reviewed earlier on this blog. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) is one of top 15 films of the 21st century for the author. Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (2013) is one of top 10 films of 2013 for the author.