Near the end of this gripping film from Romania, the main character, a doctor, while riding on a bus, looks out the window and sees one of the men who had just been in a line-up of suspects in the sexual assault of his teenage daughter. She failed to identify any of them, but he feels she may not have wanted to cooperate. Perhaps, just to spite him. Impulsively, he rushes off the bus to accost the man, but loses him. He continues, though, obeying blind instinct until he wanders into a darkened area of half-ruined deserted homes. The stillness is punctuated with unexplained, crashing noises, possibly gunshots. Lost, and suddenly terrified, he tries to find his way to safety.
I mention this scene – which is totally unnecessary to the story – because it is genuinely frightening, and because it shows how successful the filmmaker, writer-director Cristian Mungiu, has been in making us care about this character, a flawed, disappointed but essentially decent man. When starting his career, Dr. Aldea had chosen to stay in his ruined country, but he and his wife had always presumed that their daughter would have a real opportunity to escape the corruption and shoddy workmanship that defined life in modern Romania. But the brutal assault, just a day before her examinations, threatened her scholarship to Cambridge. And her sub-standard performance, surely due to the attack, placed him in the agonizing position of having to betray his principles by seeking a favor from certain officials who, for favors in return, could “enhance” her test scores.
The dilemna of Dr. Aldea is the unwavering focus of the story, and Adrian Titieni’s brilliant performance in the role is rarely offscreen. About fifty, with soft features and spectacles, he seems like a man straining under the weight of a lifetime of submission and worry. Living at home while frequenting his mistress after office hours – an arrangement accepted by his wife but unknown to his daughter, Eliza – he seems unprepared for the kind of casual and free-wheeling corruption that is a job requirement for low level officials. But, much to his unpleasant surprise, he seems to take to it comfortably.
While the plot is complex and intriguing, the film’s most impressive achievement is the evocation of an atmosphere of pervasive corruption, one that covers the society like a layer of poisoned gas. Even in sunshine, the photography suggests haze and lack of definition. The clothing people wear, like the interior of their homes, is devoid of bright colors.
What weighs so heavily on the doctor, and which is strongly felt by the viewer, is how difficult it is for any Romanian citizen not to be complicit in this diseased system. Official favors are swapped like currency bribes, whether it’s for exam points or donor livers. Even if you try to stay “pure”, you’re going to see who gets away with it, but the only people you can tell about it are the officials who have survived because they are the most corrupt of all.
And yet, Mungiu does find hope, and the film ends at the title event, with Eliza smiling and standing proudly among her classmates. This is a bold move, especially since the story seemed to be stacked for a disastrous outcome. I half expected it to end in the darkened alley Dr. Aldea had run into.
While dramatically surprising, Mungiu pulls it off because he has given us a heroine, Eliza, who has the strength of character to make a difference, although probably not until several years after the film has ended. Maybe the Aldeas raised their daughter too well. Somehow, the goal of material success never became so strong as to suppress a sense of personal responsibility, an integrity, that made her hate cheating to get ahead. She might have seen that her parents’ struggles were enough to make a decent enough lifestyle for the family, without the corruption. Or not, at least, any that she knew about (except for her father’s mistress, so shameful). So why shouldn’t she expect that same degree of integrity from herself?
But Mungiu’s optimism has its built-in limits. It may be that only the young, who have not yet had to endure the demands of adulthood, could stand by this commitment for very long. After decades of witnessing “…that’s just the way things are“, it may be too much to ask of the average citizen.
And yet Eliza, in Maria Dragus’ glowing performance, shows signs of being more than average. Especially since she says that she might choose to stay in Romania and turn down the scholarship. Could that sense of personal responsibility be, perhaps, self-referential? After all, Mungiu’s international reputation has opened up many commercial opportunities for him, but he’s not yet made a feature outside of his native country. Even though the Romanian government would very, very much like for him to just…go away.
FINAL WORD: The only bothersome flaw in the movie – at least for me – is how it treats the mass media. Namely, it doesn’t. I don’t remember anyone reading a paper, watching television, going to a movie or searching the internet. Also, you’d think that the assault of the daughter of a prominent doctor would hit the newspapers. That some reporter would think it a story worth telling. Instead, nothing. In fact, a viewer might think that there’s no such thing as censorship in Romania because there’s nothing for the government to censor. This can’t be right. If I’m missing something, please let me know.