Cristian Mungiu’s latest movie, Graduation—for which he won Best Director at Cannes last year—opens with an establishing shot of a dusty European square surrounded by small apartment blocks, then quickly cuts to an interior: a neat living room, with lamps and sofa and table. And there the camera lingers. You might think it a photograph, if net curtains weren’t moving slightly at the picture’s edge. There are a few lulling seconds of noise from the off-screen square: cars, children playing. Then abruptly a rock is thrown through the window—and the curtains flare out wildly.
This image of an interior shattered by outside forces could be the emblem for all Mungiu’s films. He loves to present stories in which someone’s integrity is assailed by external influences, and Graduation offers one of his most melancholy contraptions for testing his characters’ limitations. The setting is the Romanian city of Cluj. Romeo, a doctor, lives with his wife Magda and daughter Eliza. He is quietly pursuing an affair with Sandra, a single mother who is also a teacher at Eliza’s school; meanwhile, he is gently evading questions from his aging mother about her deteriorating health. But this system of everyday domestic duplicity is soon to be overtaken by a larger network of moral compromise.
Romeo’s obsessive goal is for Eliza to get the grades she needs from her high school exams so she can go to university in Britain. He is desperate for her to leave the country—just as he blames himself and Magda for returning to it, after leaving in 1989. (“We thought things would change,” he tells his daughter, “we thought we’d move mountains. We didn’t change anything.”) But Eliza is sexually assaulted the day before the exams; injured and in shock, she still has to take the tests. Her first exam goes badly. It is suddenly uncertain that she will get the necessary grades.
What follows is a family melodrama, taking place over the two or three days of the exams: a chain of small corruptions and unexpected calamities, as Romeo makes a deal with the deputy mayor, the chief of police, and the headmaster of Eliza’s school, involving a carousel of mutual favors, in order to have Eliza’s grades quietly doctored. And in the process, the large hinterland of Romeo’s self—his capacity for betrayal, contradiction, self-pity—is brutally revealed.
Mungiu’s first movie, Occident, came out in 2002, when he was thirty-four. It was a small set of interlinking stories about young Romanians wanting to emigrate to the West. But he discovered his true form with his second film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—a gruesomely suspenseful story about an illegal abortion in Communist Bucharest—which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007. And he followed it in 2012 with another intense narrative, Beyond the Hills, about an exorcism in a provincial Romanian monastery.
In the fifteen years of his career, Mungiu has refined his explorations in a hybrid form: melodrama filmed with naturalistic technique. The stories his films tell possess an old-fashioned three-act structure: crisis, complication, finale. His characters are starkly arranged on either side of a moral border. And yet the look is much more casual and less controlled. It’s visible in the cinematography, where random objects block the camera’s view, or the focus is adjusted in mid-shot; and also in the wonderful clutter of his sets, like the opening image (another still life) in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—a table with a burning cigarette in an ash-tray, a clock, a cup and saucer, a bowl, some bank notes, a cigarette package, a lamp, underwear drying on a radiator, some hand lotion, some milk, and a fish bowl with a drawing of a cityscape inside it. Only the cigarette smoke and the fish are moving.
That insouciant naturalism is what places him in what’s become known as the Romanian New Wave—a group of filmmakers who began their careers about a decade after the fall of Communism in 1989. As well as Mungiu, the group includes Radu Muntean, Corneliu Porumboiu, and, most importantly, Cristi Puiu. It was Puiu’s brilliant movie Stuff and Dough that in 2001 established the aesthetic of wild realism that would be employed, with individual variations, by every member of the New Wave. Puiu said that he found it in the American cinema of Cassavetes, but it also feels like something modeled on Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 manifesto—the use of natural light and handheld cameras, a refusal of external music: the absolute lo-fi avant-garde.
But Puiu’s true originality has been his approach to narrative. He is a master of a category of detail we experience everywhere in life and almost nowhere in art: the possibly connected, the random but still meaningful. (Another of its masters is Jim Jarmusch—and Jarmusch is an explicit influence on Stuff and Dough and on Puiu’s subsequent 2004 short, Un cartuş de Kent şi un pachet de cafea, whose title is a riff on Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, which came out a year earlier.) In Stuff and Dough, a slacker agrees to carry black market medicines from Constanța to Bucharest. This mini-mobster premise seems to constantly imply a kind of gangster movie, but while Puiu included occasional noir tropes—a menacing SUV, a taciturn boss—these never coalesce into anything as ordered as a plot.
The reason for the rarity of this kind of ambiguity in fiction, I think, is its difficulty: it’s hard to construct a composition where random detail is held in suspension, neither meaningless nor predictably meaningful. In Stuff and Dough, Puiu made his first investigation into this problem—and it would flower in his subsequent movies, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Aurora, and, most recently, Sieranevada.
In Mungiu’s work, on the other hand, the composition is always just a little too insistent. Every detail is a cause or an effect, every ambiguity eventually embalmed in resolution. That rock thrown through the window in Graduation, for instance, marks the beginning of a series of small acts of vandalism against Romeo that seem to go unexplained. But then comes a moment toward the end of the movie when Romeo, kicked out by his wife, spends the night at his girlfriend’s house. The next morning, she asks him to look after her young son, Matei. He takes Matei to the playground—where Matei throws stones at a kid who hasn’t waited in line to play on a jungle gym. In this movie where no scene is without its narrative point, it’s a depressingly closed moment: too obviously there to inform us that Matei—upset at Romeo’s affair with his mother—has been responsible for the small-scale acts of violence. The weight of the apparently random is dissolved in the acid of Mungiu’s planning.
Every cinematic New Wave—ever since the original Nouvelle Vague—has brandished its own particular manifesto of savage naturalism. In Romania, that savagery has taken two forms: an insistence on minimalist filmmaking, and a vision of post-1989 society as inescapably corrupt and corrupting, the provincial as a form of doom. “I wanted to tell the story of a compromise,” Puiu said of Stuff and Dough, and compromise has been the Romanian New Wave’s basic theme. I wonder if this is why the stories they tell so often flirt with the theatrical unities—time-limited situations of danger, where the characters are in conflict with the institutions of power. The time pressure acts as an accelerant to uncover the characters’ weaknesses—and this is especially true of Mungiu.
But this theatrical form, I began to suspect, with its improbable high-speed series of sudden illnesses and revelations, expresses a larger problem than Mungiu seems to know. The ostentatiously scruffy look of his films is designed to imply a literalism, an absolute reality. But the reality promised by the film’s images is threatened in two ways: by the melodrama of the narrative that these images construct, and by the conventionality of the images’ framing. There’s almost no shot in Graduation that isn’t a single or dual portrait. The camera never roams an interior or a landscape. Nor does it ever retreat into the far distance, or into gruesome close-ups. Everything is shot from the neat distance of a conversation—or an audience.
Maybe every film director has to find ways of refusing the forms of theater. That’s one lesson of Graduation—and it becomes more visible if you compare its contradiction between script and camera to a similar kind of discrepancy in some of Lars von Trier’s Dogme films: Breaking the Waves, for instance, where an allegorical story of a woman’s brutal self-sacrifice is told through the giddy, skittering images captured by handheld cameras. For Von Trier has always deliberately exploited his combinations of filmic elements—plots and genres and styles—which are usually kept separate. His aim is for a radical instability of tone (most notoriously perhaps in Dancer in the Dark: a musical about the death penalty). He loves to play with the multiple elements of a film, to exacerbate their potential divergences.
Mungiu, instead, has always asserted a studied aesthetic neutrality. In an interview about Graduation, he observed: “I won’t use music because there is no music in life, and I won’t signal to you as a spectator how to feel.” But true neutrality may be more elusive. For Mungiu does include music in Graduation. The film is punctuated by exquisite baroque arias, in particular Handel’s “Ombra mai fu”—conveniently being listened to within the movie, in an apartment or the car. They assert a pathos that the film itself never quite produces. And it reminded me of a moment in Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker’s short documentary Two American Audiences, recording Jean-Luc Godard’s visit to NYU in 1968. Godard was asked why in his film La Chinoise he interrupted characters’ conversations with loud excerpts from Vivaldi. It seemed, said an earnest grad student, a mystery. “Why is it a mystery?” replied Godard. “When you are walking in the street, you are suddenly whistling for ten seconds, and then, you know… I mean: there is nothing more than that.” In that moment, Godard seems at once a more extravagant filmmaker than Mungiu, and a greater realist.