A boy throws a stone at another boy on a playground. While the incident is not medically serious, it troubles the man watching over the unhappy perpetrator. That's no way to behave, the man, a doctor, says. "So how should I behave?" the boy replies.
He doesn't get much of an answer, but it's the key question for every character in writer-director Cristian Mungiu's "Graduation," a beautifully spun and morally searching tale of interlocking compromises. Set in a post-communist Transylvanian mountain town, where corruption floats in the air like a permanent morning haze, Mungiu's film arrives in a limited commercial run at a time when a lot of very fine new films have come out to play. If not quite as sharp as Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" or "Beyond the Hills," "Graduation" nonetheless offers sharp, steady insights into precarious human conditions hardly limited to Romania after Ceausescu.
The doctor protagonist is Romeo (Adrian Titieni, perfectly modulating his degrees of frustration and anger and self-loathing). For a year or so he has been stepping out on his depressive wife (Lia Bugnar) with the mother (Malina Manovici) of the young boy. The doctor and his wife fled Romania years earlier but returned in 1991, we learn, with the hope of improving life in his homeland. Now all hopes are pinned on their bright, hardworking teenage daughter (Maria Dragus), who's on the verge of getting out herself, by way of a Cambridge University scholarship.
She need only pass a final exam. Off-screen, in the first few minutes of "Graduation," the daughter is assaulted on the way to school. With her arm in a cast, and her nerves badly shaken, suddenly a routine final test becomes a monumental difficulty. Romeo takes action, right or wrong, in order to protect his daughter's future.
From there Mungiu illustrates the fine art of one hand washing another hand, and another, and another. Romeo's police chief friend (Vlad Ivanov, Romania's poster boy for vaguely menacing figures of authority) suggests that Romeo move the city's vice mayor (Petre Ciubotaru) up a few notches on a live transplant waiting list. In exchange, the politician can pull a few strings regarding the final exam. Meantime Romeo's mistress wants her young son placed in a certain public school, one that is technically already at capacity. (Chicago Public Schools parents will find much sweat-inducing detail to relate to here.)
Everybody cheats, a little or a lot. At one point, Romeo is interrogated at work by a pair of deadpan public prosecutors, one of whom says: "He who persists in illegality will probably have to pay for it." The way the actor mutters the line, the word "probably" has never seemed less probable.
Like the work of Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi ("A Separation"), Mungiu's films are stern, carefully paced dramas of queasy compromise and evasion. Unsolved riddles persist, though here there's a touch of the schematic in their deployment. In the opening shot, a rock smashes an apartment building window. Is Romeo being stalked? Is someone on to his infidelity? The outlook here cannot escape the influence of a nation bear-trapped by its own recent history. "Graduation" may not roll around in my brain the way Mungiu's best work does, but it's consistently absorbing and well-acted, and Mungiu's camera makes even simple police station interrogations or drive-around sequences unassuming things of beauty.
Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.
"Graduation" — 3.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some language)
Running time: 2:07