This is a test – but for whom?

Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat (2016) (or Graduation, as it is called in English-speaking countries) is firmly rooted in realism, but manages to turn some of its characters paranoid. Somewhere around the movie’s middle mark, I turned slightly paranoid, too. It’s entirely possible that this paranoia might be intentional, and that it might refer to the fact that this is a Romanian production, with its subtle hints to the Ceausescu regime which had the whole country in its grip until 1989, but it doesn’t have to be. We could also just witness a system that works with favoritism and secret handshakes, but the thing is: the favoritism in the movie, while not legitimate, does not increase the elite’s power, but helps single individuals overcome their problems. It’s a film about morals without wagging its finger at you.

To wit: there is Eliza, a young student who has a British university grant in her pocket. The only thing she still needs is to pass her bacalaureat, and she can leave Romania for good, because her parents want her to have a better life, but since she is smart and top of her class, that is not much more than a formality. On the way to her school, she is assaulted by a man and almost raped. She is traumatised, her right arm is in a cast, and she won’t be able to write fast enough during her exams. Her father, a hospital doctor called Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), goes and talks to the head of exams, who gives him the name and address of another man who has nothing to do with education or schools, but he manages to arrange for Eliza to get the much-needed grades if she should fail the exam. No-one in the movie has a problem with this, because you see, Eliza is smart enough and has a better life within her grasp, and the assault certainly was not her fault, so should she not get good marks anyway?

Most of the relationships in the movie are tainted by favoritism of some kind. Aldea brings pills to his ailing mother, who might not be as sick as she thinks she is, and some of Aldea’s pills might indeed be placebos. His wife Magda doesn’t like him anymore and only wants their daughter to pass the exam, so she has done her duty and can leave her husband. Aldea has a mistress called Sandra, and there might be true love there, but Sandra needs a logopedist for her speechless son Matei. Aldea has to provide one, or Sandra will look elsewhere.

Bacalaureat is surprisingly kind and without any bloodshed or physical violence, but I had to think of Michael Haneke’s movies for two reasons. There is a rock smashing through the Aldeas’ living-room window, and later through the windshield of Dr. Aldea’s car. These two scenes remain unexplained, but it’s impossible not to think of Haneke’s Caché (2005) with those grainy videotapes. And Eliza is played by Maria Dragus, whose distinctive features you might remember from Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009).

Let me give you an example of that sneaking paranoia. Dr. Aldea, through some favour with the police, manages to arrange for a line-up so Eliza can identify her attacker. There are four men lining up, but the one man who looks very much like the police sketch is obscured by Eliza’s outline. Why? And why does the man with the moustache, who looks nothing like the sketch, have to repeat his lines over and over until he gets angry and desperate? Does someone want to influence Eliza’s decision? If so, why? Who is the man with the moustache, and is he guilty of something? You see what I mean? There is a scene later when Dr. Aldea returns home by bus and sees one of the men from the line-up standing at a bus-stop – not the man from the sketch, and not the man with the moustache, but as soon as Aldea gets off the bus to pursue him, that man bolts. Why? We are left to make our own assumption. Mungiu is interested in paranoia because it also is a topic in his older movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), where two women have to try and find someone to perform an abortion and are sent from one shady stranger to the next. Both movies are not Saturday-night material, but they are very intriguing and far less depressing than they sound.

Some of the scenes in Bacalaureat consist of three-minute dialogues and then cut away. A lot of the tension comes from the contradiction between the simplicity of the shot and the labyrinthine nature of the dialogues. Someone always suggests that someone else could help Dr. Aldea in some way, and since he is a doctor, he has clout, too. Since he only needs a small favour, and since no-one seems to follow the proper channels anyway, he uses that new connection, although he knows that it is morally wrong to do so. It’s all for the best, and it’s worth it since it is about the future of his daughter, even if the DA turns up in his office. (The DA? Because he tried to get better grades for his daughter?) Eliza deserves her good grades, doesn’t she? No-one gets hurt, and it’s the result that counts. As soon as you can believe that, all is well.

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