Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Earlier this year Romanians of all ages gathered in their thousands in a square in Bucharest to demonstrate against their state’s softening of anti-corruption laws, giving the rest of us an object lesson in how determined demonstration with a focussed aim can achieve much. The corruption we see being born here in Mungiu’s film is not to the same scale, it’s low-level, motivated at first by love rather than gain or personal power, but it lets us into the process of how the smallest, almost innocent beginnings can escalate out of control, and how no-one is immune.
Romeo (Adrian Titieni) and his wife Magda are of the generation who were young towards the end of Ceaşcescu’s rule. They escaped, but returned after his overthrow, full of ideals that they could make a brave new world in their country. Instead, though he is a well-respected surgeon, they find themselves in a run-down block of flats in a scrubby vandal-plagued suburb, the depressed Magda has a dead end job in a school library where half the books are stuck up with sellotape, and their marriage is shaky. The tone of their surroundings is set by the opening shot, a man digging a hole on the corner, hurling gritty dirt almost into our faces, reminiscent of the splosh of mucky pot-hole water dashed across the screen at the end of Mungiu’s last film, Beyond the Hills. This director has a way of making us feel personally grubby and threatened, with the distant, half-melancholy half-menacing sound of barking dogs often present.
Romeo and Magda’s hopes for the future now lie with their daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), a bright girl who is in line for a scholarship to Cambridge if she does well in her exams – this they see as her chance to escape the dreary and constricting life they find themselves in. That she’s not so sure she wants to leave is another matter. How far Romeo is trying to correct his own damaged life through her is one of many complex aspects that make this film so absorbing. But on the day before she is to take the most important of her exams she is sexually assaulted on her way to school. The trauma and the fact that her writing arm is encased in plaster doesn’t, amazingly, seem to get her any special consideration from the school, so Dad does what he can to make sure her grades aren’t damaged, by other means, beginning with a little persuasion and leading to an attempt to actually pervert the law. Or maybe that’s the only way to get justice in that corrupt world, that’s the sad thing.
That Romeo’s a decent, well intentioned man with whom we feel much sympathy makes the process painful for us as well as for him – there’s never any standing back to judge with Mungiu, we’re in there with Romeo all the grubby way, even as his character degrades in sweaty closeup as he gradually loses his self-respect as well as that of his daughter. There’s a painful scene where he scrambles around the dark hinterland of the suburban streets that’s always waiting there – still the barking dogs – spooked by an unformulated threat. By the end he’s a broken man, looking after his mistress’s little boy as he visits the school where his daughter’s class is holding their leaving day, in a personal hell as he looks on the innocent classrooms and old murals of sunny students eager for learning – all those dead dreams. There’s the sound from outside of ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ as speeches are made and class photos are taken.
In the end it’s all been for nothing. Eliza has ‘fixed it’ for herself. The graduation that she has achieved is into the shady, knowing world of adulthood. And for Romeo it’s a second graduation, the first, years ago, his disillusionment with his country, the second with himself.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema 3 April 2017