Saturday Features

The good doctor

  • Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s new Bacalaureat—following one man’s calamitous fall from grace, in a nutshell—makes for an incisive, riveting study of the jumble of contextual and personal forces that drive our actions
Mungiu’s portrayal of corruption as a condition of moral decay is wrapped in nuance…. And while the depiction is heavily grounded in regional particulars, it can also be made to apply to other contexts, none more so than our own

Apr 15, 2017-I don’t do such things,” characters can be heard saying to one another numerous times throughout Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s new Bacalaureat (Graduation), eager to convince the other person—but mostly themselves—of the infallibility of their principles, to show that whatever they’re about to do is but an anomaly, a forgivable divergence, in no way a reflection of their broader moral standards. But it’s also something of a running joke, because it’s obvious that “such things” cannot be so easily compartmentalised; they tend to have a knock-on effect—one compromise leading to another to another until one is knee-deep in the smelly stuff. 

Bacalaureat follows one such chain of events to its logical conclusion—one man’s calamitous fall from grace, in a nutshell—making for an incisive, riveting study of the jumble of contextual and personal forces that drive our actions. As with his previous efforts, in particular 2007’s brilliant and harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu offers here an almost scarily realistic examination of moral dilemmas—the kind of unthinkable decisions desperation can compel—coloured with the dysfunctions specific to his native setting, and eliciting some wonderful performances from his cast in the process. 

Dr Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is feeling optimistic: his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) has just been offered a scholarship to university in the UK—all contingent, of course, on her passing her final exams with a high score, which Romeo is certain she’ll do—and it won’t be long before she’s gone on to bigger and better things than he knows Romania could ever hope to offer. Romeo and his wife, the frail, sickly Magda (Lia Bugnar), had themselves left the country during the communist era, you see, but returned thereafter to their hometown in Cluj, a decision our bespectacled protagonist clearly wishes he could take back, considering the dismal lack of prospects, the social and political decrepitude that is evident all around them. It’s too late for the couple, in more ways than one, but at least Eliza has a chance to escape.

A day before the exams are set to start, however, Eliza is assaulted by a stranger on the street on her way to school. Although she manages to fend off the attacker before he is able do too much damage, she is still left with an injured wrist, and her nerves thoroughly shattered. This effectively puts her chances of acing her tests in jeopardy and Romeo—though, of course, hit hard by the incident itself—appears even more terrified by the possibility that Eliza might not make it out of the country after all. In what proves a testament to the extent of his disenchantment with life and conditions in Romania, he soon finds himself doing things he never thought himself capable of—once-lofty principles slowly but surely disintegrating—in his desperation to secure his daughter’s future.  

What’s interesting about this decline is how Romeo has always fancied himself existing in something of a bubble, distinct from, and certainly superior to, his contemporaries, who are so astute at bending the system and its rules to their advantage. But, as nicely captured by the mystery brick that comes hurtling through his window in the film’s opening, this insularity is but an illusion—he can’t escape his surroundings, or his own complicity in perpetuating the state they are in. For all his grumbling and grouching about how awful things are in Romania, that his daughter won’t be able to “handle life here”, it turns out Romeo knows just where to 

turn, and can grease hands and pull strings with the best of them when the time comes, making him not just a part of, but in a position of privilege, within the same corrupt system he so vocally disdains and wants to shield Eliza from. 

Mungiu’s portrayal of this corruption as a condition of moral decay is wrapped in nuance: much as in reality, there are no clear “good” or “bad” guys here, just people who have learned to survive, and in some cases flourish, in an environment characterised by ineffectual institutions and lack of formal checks and balances, creating an in-built impetus, and more than enough opportunity, for such practices. And while the depiction is heavily grounded in regional particulars, it can also be made to apply to other contexts, including that of Nepal. Indeed, the cronyism and bureaucratic indifference on display in Bacalaureat, the casual manner in which unsavoury deals are made in broad daylight, and the normalisation of the link between such deals and gettingany job, done—“the result is all that matters,” Romeo tells his wife when he senses her wavering on their plans for Eliza, for instance—often hit exceedingly close to home for this viewer. 

In terms of visuals, Bacalaureat relies on the same pared-down, subtle style that marked Mungiu’s earlier films, encompassing bleak, desolate landscapes bathed in an unsaturated palette, and demonstrating a penchant for often-excruciating long takes that significantly up the intensity of scenes. There is no musical score to speak of either, leaving us to contend with other, more natural sounds—stray dogs saunter in and out of the frame, their barking frequently intruding on conversations, and phones are constantly ringing in the background, and not always being picked up—all serving to crucially communicate the sense of disorder imbued in the daily routines of these characters. Bacalaureat, then, stakes more on believability than glamour—a memo extended to the cast as well, who are pitch-perfect, not least Titieni, looking and acting like someone you could have just picked out from a crowd, completely, remarkably ordinary. German-Romanian Dragus is also terrific as the enigmatic daughter whose feelings and motivations never quite snap clearly into view, even until the very end.

Mungiu’s newest might not be as impactful as some of his best work, but it’s a masterpiece all the same, a thought-provoking, assiduously true-to-life morality drama that will stay with you long after. 

Published: 15-04-2017 08:43

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