The view from the mountain

Cristian Mungiu talks about honesty, guilt and Graduation.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Graduation (Bacalaureat) director Cristian Mungiu:
Graduation (Bacalaureat) director Cristian Mungiu: "Everything in the film has a real level and a real explanation." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The director of Beyond The Hills, starring Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, and Cannes Palme d'Or winner for 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, explored his latest film with me when we met for a conversation at the 54th New York Film Festival. Graduation (Bacalaureat), co-produced by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, had its World Premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where he shared Best Director honors with Olivier Assayas.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a doctor in the hospital of a provincial town wishes nothing more urgently than for his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) to be awarded a scholarship to Cambridge so that she can leave for "civilised" England. All Eliza has to do, is pass the graduation exams with her usual, excellent grades.

Marius (Rares Andrici), Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Romeo (Adrian Titieni)
Marius (Rares Andrici), Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Romeo (Adrian Titieni)

One morning during the family's stressful week, Dad is in a hurry and lets his daughter - whom he drives to school every day - out of the car near a construction site instead of right in front of the entrance. That day, Eliza is assaulted. Romeo receives the call while he is with his mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici), - the real reason for his hurry. How much his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), Eliza's mother, knows is not revealed to us.

In the case of Graduation, stray dogs roam, apples, oranges and lemons are bought and sliced by the ever calculating father, while rocks and bricks from the crumbling buildings are everywhere. Who throws the first stone in his latest Romanian tale is a mystery - the first of many.

Anne-Katrin Titze: For Beyond The Hills I spoke with both of your actresses, Cosmina and Cristina.

Cristian Mungiu: You spoke on the phone or they were here?

AKT: They were here in 2012. You were on Skype for the New York Film Festival press conference then.

Romeo and Eliza with Chief Inspector (Vlad Ivanov)
Romeo and Eliza with Chief Inspector (Vlad Ivanov)

CM: That's possible.

AKT: I'm happy to speak with you in person this time around. I want to start with how you start Graduation - with a sand pile. Right away audiences must be going in different directions, I was thinking. Is it a grave? Is it a molehill? What are you building? What are you constructing here? Can you talk about that hill a little bit?

CM: I don't want to be too explicit, to be honest.

AKT: Please don't! That's not what I'm asking.

CM: There's a connection in a way with the ending of my previous film. So I started where the previous film stopped. Do you remember at the ending of the previous film they were stopping with the car in the middle of the crossroads?

AKT: Yes, I do.

Eliza at the police station lineup
Eliza at the police station lineup

CM: And there were these people digging, I don't know, whatever, at the end of this film. So it was a way of starting from there onwards, like a connection. Speaking about empathy in society today - it was a connection for me between these two films. But it has a lot of levels, to be honest. This first shot is not only about these people digging. I really thought it's also about this landscape that you see, this block of flats which is in front of the camera which is very special to me.

In the sense that if you watch that block of flats as very grey and very dirty and old and still there's this guy living on the second floor who renovated just his own apartment. He made it green! And I thought that, you know, this speaks a lot about something important for me in this film. About individual solutions in that society when what we need is a collective solution for this society. And it speaks about selfishness and about this need to find a solution not by saving the children and sending them one after the other abroad. But finding a solution to change things there eventually. So, I thought, for me the first shot speaks in a lot of ways.

Romeo with his daughter Eliza:
Romeo with his daughter Eliza: "It's about, I don't know, digging under the surface. "

AKT: When you were talking about the apartment block, just now, I thought about Kieslowski's Dekalog - the different apartments.

CM: That's true that there are common landmarks, which are not necessarily intentional but they are associated with a period in which they - in all former Eastern European countries they were building neighborhoods like this so they became in a way iconic, the landmark of that period. And I like a lot this idea of the individual trapped in the middle of this. That's a microcosm. Somebody living with 50 more people in the same community is part in this small world. Sometimes you understand that you can live in the middle of people and still be very much alone.

AKT: On the one hand connected - maybe even where you don't want to be connected. When I spoke with Kleber Mendonça Filho about Aquarius, he talked about people being connected almost by osmosis. In certain communities you can't help it.

CM: You can't help it, yes! Here what I wanted with these people, digging the hole, for example, it's also about that rock, that stone, which is thrown out when they dig. It has something to do with the events later on. It speaks about fate, chance for me. They just throw it out. And it's also about what digging means. I think for me Graduation is also the portrait of somebody who feels guilty. Because he knows that there's a truth that he knows about himself and there's truth for everybody else.

Magda (Lia Bugnar) with her husband Romeo:
Magda (Lia Bugnar) with her husband Romeo: "I think for me Graduation is also the portrait of somebody who feels guilty."

So it's also about this process of consciousness and it's also about the necessity of bringing truth forward in his life which hopefully he manages to do by the end of the film with the help of his daughter. So digging deep was something that spoke to me. And I wanted not to see the people dig because they would have thrown the attention toward something precise. It's about, I don't know, digging under the surface. Understanding that, you know, if you dig a little bit you might find things that you don't really expect.

And especially, this is something that we should all do about ourselves. If there's a meaning associated with this film which I like by the end of it - that sometimes people feel that this is what they should be doing. Digging a bit inside themselves and check from time to time if they really are the heroes they claim to be or they are not. It's seldom you have to do this, but there comes a moment in your life where you have to do it. And the film is the portrait of that moment.

AKT: I noticed, perhaps, the opposite of the digging, is the fruit. Oranges, apples, lemons. This man whom we follow is constantly bringing groceries to wherever he goes, the family, the mistress. And he is cutting fruit for the daughter. He is providing someone with fruit. It had the same feeling of - yes, there is something bigger and metaphorical here and simultaneously it's very much real and grounded in the circumstance.

Bacalaureat Cannes Film Festival poster
Bacalaureat Cannes Film Festival poster

CM: Everything in the film has a real level and a real explanation. This is how I work. Even a few moments which feel a little bit when you watch the film as being oneirical. Does this exist in English, like dreamy?

AKT: Oneirical, yes. When he walks?

CM: When he walks at the end. And that other moment when he stops and goes into this forest. They still, you know, have a very rational explanation. But for me the primary opposition between this digging underneath at the beginning of the film is when he is uphill, talking to the policeman. There's a moment when they speak about something which is very strange. They start having that conversation about the view from the top of the mountain - which seemed to be clearer when they were younger. But now it's fuzzy. It's not that clear any longer.

That's, I think, the most metaphorical moment for me in the film. Something that I do - I don't want to have a precise translation into words of the moments that I use in film with these metaphorical purposes. I don't want to translate them precisely - it's just different levels I'm trying to reach with most of them.

This conversation, of course it could be about what you see from the top of the mountain, but for me it's mostly a conversation about the huge difference in your life between the way you imagine your life to be when you are twenty and thinking about your fifties as being a river somewhere very, very far away.

And the way your life looks when you really get to be 50. Sometimes there's no connection whatsoever between what you imagined it would be and what it really is. So I wanted to have a moment like this in the film. And there is another moment which I like a lot. It's that moment with the marbles.

AKT: Yes! I wanted to talk to you about the marbles.

CM: That's supposed to be funny but it also speaks about time, about the way people relate to their lives, about motives why so many people at this stage are depressed. I wanted to have this story closed in the film and maybe it's not that clear. Sometimes when you shoot, you lose some details.

But actually I like it a lot that by the end of the film he gives the little boy a marble that he picked up from this policeman. Because he gives it with all the meaning of what that marble means. He is giving some time and attention of his life to this other child as a sign that, maybe, I don't know, he learned something.

Coming up - Cristian Mungiu on throwing the stone, Cannes film delegate Thierry Frémaux, England as a module, spending time in Edinburgh, the squirrels in Central Park, and the dog in Graduation "who is really a very, very good actor, I have to say."

Graduation screens in the Glasgow Film Festival on February 23 at 3:20pm and February 24 at 10:45am - Glasgow Film Theatre

Graduation comes out in the UK on March 17 and in the US on April 7.

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