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Replicating the Ambiguity of Life: Cristian Mungiu on “Graduation”

The sense of faceless menace that has pervaded so many Michael Haneke films, particularly 2005’s “Caché,” haunts every frame of Romanian master Cristian Mungiu’s agonizingly tense new drama, “Graduation.” From the very beginning, it appears that our protagonist, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), is being preyed upon by unseen forces. Windows are smashed, his daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is assaulted and her chances of acing a crucial exam are suddenly jeopardized. Romeo believes that this exam will provide his daughter with the ticket she needs to leave their troubled country and build a more prosperous future for herself. How many laws of a corrupt system are Romeo willing to break in order to give his daughter the life he believes she needs? 

Nearly a decade after earning the Palme d’Or for 2007’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Mungiu won the Best Director prize for “Graduation” at the Cannes Film Festival, tying with Olivier Assayas for “Personal Shopper.” At last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, Mungiu spoke with about his immersive visual style, his mesmerizing leading lady and how he goes about replicating the ambiguity of life.

What inspired you to tell this story?

It always starts from a personal place. Even the films that I’ve made with female protagonists are deeply personal stories. “Graduation” is personal in a different way. I’m the father of a couple of boys, so I’m spending a lot of time just being a parent rather than a filmmaker. I have a lot of doubts about parenting and education, especially in a country like mine that has many problems, despite all the progress that we’ve made in the last 25 years. During our 50 years of communism, people felt entitled to solve their problems regardless of the means. It was all about survival. People kept this habit of finding the easiest solution for problems without thinking necessarily about their moral consequences. I made the decision at age 21 to stay in Romania and try to change things at home. We have seen positive changes in our society, but they haven’t been as huge as we had expected them to be. It’s very difficult for these changes to occur faster, historically speaking. 

The question we are all faced with is what we will do with our children. It’s easier to make a decision about your own future, but what about that of your children? The problem is not about whether you decide to send the children away or let them remain in Romania. The problem is that depending on this decision, the education that you are encouraging is going to be very different. If they stay, they need to be survivors in this kind of world. They need to know how things work. The rules that we use as a general framework are not at all simple. If your children are going to study abroad and have a career abroad, that is an entirely different situation. So the film originated from me wanting to make this portrait of how different life looks at 50 from what you had imagined it would look like at 20. It’s like visiting a dream you once had about your future. It’s interesting to reflect on the people that I see around me who are depressed and disappointed when they look back and forward at their lives. They reach this day which is very complicated in the life of a parent when they try to save their life by placing all of their hopes on their child. 

I started thinking about this idea of compromise that is tolerated in the family. You are the result of all the choices you have made, good or bad, and it is not very easy to accept some of the things that you do. People are great liars in order to be able to just get along with themselves. They will always try to look better than they are or seem nicer than they are, but this is not very responsible. Parents who lecture their children with moral speeches often don’t understand that education is not achieved by what you tell children, but mostly by what they see you doing. Since I read a lot of newspapers, I was able to pull together stories I had seen regarding education, parenting and corruption in order to form this script.

I was impressed by the performance from Maria-Victoria Dragus, who was so chilling in Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon.”

She was 14 when she made that film. When I watched it, I noticed in the credits that there were three Romanian names, and they all had the same family name. I wondered who these people were, and I started looking into it. Haneke was casting in the countries of the former empire, looking for faces of people that looked a little old-fashioned, and he ran across this family. Maria comes from a Romanian father who immigrated to Germany during the last ten years of Communism. He performed in an orchestra and married a German woman. They had three children, and Maria was the only one who was interested in her roots. She went back to Romania very often to visit her grandmother. Haneke discovered her family through a casting agency because she was doing ballet and her brother was a musician. 

There’s a program called Shooting Stars in Berlin where countries send some very young, prominent actors to meet agents and have a book made and get pictures. In the year when Romania sent Cosmina Stratan, who I cast in “Beyond the Hills,” she met Maria, who was representing Germany, and they got along very well. I called Cosmina and asked her to tell Maria that I would like to meet her at some point. A few weeks later, she came to Romania because she wanted to meet me, and I invited her to a festival that I organize. We read from a screenplay that I was writing then, and I could feel that she had the right energy. She was the only person that I had in mind when I was writing the screenplay for “Graduation.” It was the first part that she had in Romania, and she improved her Romanian a lot for the film. She really wanted to do this project, and I think you can tell in the film just how much she enjoyed playing this girl.

Whereas her entrancing pokerface suggested maliciousness in “The White Ribbon,” here it seems to convey a grounded maturity that left me feeling hopeful.

After a screening in Bucharest, we had a Q&A at the end of the film, and somebody said the same thing you just said. Then another guy stood up and started arguing with the first guy. For a while, they forgot that I was there, which I greatly enjoyed. One of the guys asked the other, “Have we seen the same film?” They were interpreting the same moments very, very differently, which is a testament to the power of cinema. Life is so ambiguous and complex, and if you manage to preserve some of its essence on film, it will travel to the spectators, and they will interpret things according to their own standpoint. I’ve seen this very often. If you’re optimistic about the ending, it’s not so much because of what has happened onscreen but because of what has happened to you.

How important is it for you to have audiences interpret your films in the way they were intended?

You have to keep a balance. I don’t want things to be too ambiguous, but there is an ambiguity and a complexity which belongs to life. I can’t make films that have black and white characters who have a very clear perspective on the decisions that they make. That’s not what life is like. Things are very, very murky. Sometimes you don’t know why you make a particular decision. In mainstream cinema, there is a tendency to psychoanalyze everything so that the audience knows precisely why somebody did something. If your goal is to make films which replicate life and the way you see life developing, you won’t get into the narrative conventions of cinema. You won’t merely be getting your inspiration from other films, which are an interpretation of life already. You will preserve what you see developing in life. When things happen in life, they are not interpreted by themselves. You interpret them, you give them meaning.

I like to replicate life in my films as much as I can. There is a lot of meaning that I place inside these ambiguous situations, and I try not to become too obvious or didactic. I try never to comment on what is happening. There are people back home who don’t like this approach and want to hear my opinion, but I don’t think I owe that to anybody. There was a debate back home spurred by people who thought that this film was primarily about corruption in Romania, and I hope that it is not seen like that. For me, the film is about much more important things like aging and family and truth and feeling guilty and the choices you make in life. Of course, when you live in Romania, you are occupied a lot by issues of local corruption, and somebody wrote that I should’ve tackled that issue more. Of course, I shouldn’t do anything. I accept any kind of comment about the film as long as the commenter wants to watch my film rather than the one they wanted in its place.

I’d love to ask about your approach to crafting such an immersive visual style. 

For this film, I changed my cinematographer, but I don’t think you can tell. Tudor Vladimir Panduru is a very young and very nice guy who was the assistant of my older cinematographer [Oleg Mutu] on the other films. Because he knew how I worked, it was a smooth transition. All the visuals and all the style come from my original decision that I made a long while ago to have just one shot per scene. This decision ends up designing a lot of things, including the staging of scenes, which require a very complex choreography. It’s more complicated than in theatre, because onstage, you have a great deal of space in which to work. But in a film, you have framing, you have the camera, you have the focus, you have the lights, you have the sound guys, and you have the actors, who have to be absolutely precise in order to make the audience feel that they are actually having a conversation. It can’t feel like the actors are just saying somebody else’s words. It takes a long while to get the actors to do this and the crew to work like this. It’s very complicated and tiring, and though it’s nice to talk about now, when you’re in production, it’s a pain in the ass, to be honest.

Yet I still utilize this process because it fits my philosophy that in order for cinema to be close to reality, you must abstain from using music and editing. Reality is not edited. You have to get through all the dead moments, and if we keep some of them in the film, it will give spectators the feeling that they’ve witnessed something closer to their life. There are so many films which look like reality but are not realistic. Directors know very well how to be manipulative in getting audiences to believe in their skewed view of life, whereas I try to get inspiration from what actually happens to me. There’s always the sense of a thriller in what I do, but nevertheless, it’s extracted from everyday life. There are no shotguns, there are no cars chasing each other, there is no fast editing, no music…

And yet, “Graduation” is the most suspenseful film I’ve seen this year. A score would’ve been intrusive by signaling what the audience should feel at any given moment.

This is the idea. It’s easy, but at the same time, it’s a little bit cheap. I’m not against using music, but that comes from a different kind of cinema. As far as the visuals are concerned, it’s always about finding the right position. You learn little by little when you work within the limitations of a single shot to let go of certain details, allowing them to remain off-camera, because you can’t have everything in the frame. You can feel a certain energy when the camera placement is correct. If the energy isn’t there, you just need to be inventive and change it until you feel it is right. Since we don’t edit within a given scene, our decisions during the shoot are crucial, and that brings an extra burden. Your vision must be as clear as possible when you get to the set. Everything is against you, and people will always have their own problems. I end up having 20, 30, 40 takes, which is very tiring for the actors, and that is why I work with professional actors. If I worked with amateurs, after the 20th take, they would be like, “I’m leaving.” 

I thought that making films would be fun, but it isn’t fun at all, it’s just complicated. And it’s complicated because of the level of truth that I ask from my collaborators. Sometimes actors tend to defend themselves. They need some time to get where I need them to be. We’re making corrections after each take until the actors get close enough to their characters, but everybody must get it right in order for a scene to work. The more characters you have in a situation, the more difficult it is to perfect. Sometimes you won’t get the scene right until the end of the day, and we normally don’t shoot more than one scene per day, since they are all long scenes. Sometimes you don’t have it by the day’s end, and that’s when I benefit from the freedom of being my own producer. I will just stay in that space one more day because very often, if the actors and crew all sleep on it, we will have it within the first two hours of the next day. I was pleased with the actors in this film and the way they managed to embody these characters without adding their own personal views.

What are your thoughts regarding the issue of compromise, as portrayed in this film?

For Romanians, this is an important social problem and a personal problem. Parents will send their children away because they feel that they can’t fight the problems facing our society, so they decide to compromise rather than choose the moral solution. Instead of fighting to change things and to encourage merit in society, people will choose a solution that allows them to avoid the problem. Of course, it’s easier to do this, but in the long term, you cannot improve things if you choose this solution. If everybody chooses to send their children abroad and the children who leave are the elite of the society, how do we expect our society to change? We keep complaining about how things are, but we aren’t making the sacrifice of having our children stay in Romania and teaching them to fight the problems we’re facing. Change can occur, but only little by little. What I’ve learned is that these are not just Romanian issues. So many of the journalists I spoke to in Cannes started their questions by saying, “I am from Latin America, so I understand,” or, “I’m from Eastern Europe, so I understand.” These issues are more widespread than you could imagine.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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