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April 14, 2017

It’s almost a joke by now: what wouldn’t a relatively well-off upper-middle-class parent do to help their kid get over the hurdles that lie between them and the “right” college? In America, that generally extends to throwing money at the problem, with hourly rates for subject and exam tutors running into the hundreds of dollars. Horror stories abound of helicopter parents descending when they fear their investments might not pay off.

But what does it look like in Romania, a state still unsteady in its first-world status after the fall of the Soviet Union’s communist sphere of influence at the end of the cold war? Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat — subtitled in English as Graduation — finds Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) searching his soul for the answer.

Romeo and his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar) left Romania after the revolution of 1989, seeking a life away from the corrupt back-scratching and influence-trading that dominated life in the failing states of the Eastern Bloc. But they returned as young, Western-trained idealists, joining the project to stand up a thriving middle class as a new capitalist backbone in the struggling post-communist economy. They would build their lives on the merits of their work; Romeo would gain respect as a skilled doctor; they would raise their child with their own ideals of honesty and fairness.

And that’s fine, as long as everything goes as planned. But as Eliza (Maria Drăguș) nears her graduation, their plans begin to unravel. She is attacked one morning as she cuts through a construction site on the way to school. Understandably shaken, she’s in no position to perform well on the national Bacalaureat exams over the next few days. And without good scores on those, her scholarship to study psychology at Cambridge is in jeopardy.

An American audience will think that surely there is some provision for delaying the exam under such extraordinary circumstances, but no. The system may resemble the West, but it’s shaky and brittle, and not resilient against unexpected events. Not that ours is perfect either — not by a long shot — but in Romania it’s so regularly broken that the people have learned to fill in the gaps by reverting to their old networks of friends and favors, just like they did under Ceauşescu. Maybe Romeo can put his thumb on the scale to move someone up the transplant list for a new liver. And maybe that guy can lean on the president of the exam committee. And maybe that guy can convince the other exam graders that when they see a paper with three words crossed out just so, they can pass it through with the highest grade.

And for all Romeo’s fretting about the ethical quandary, this isn’t the first time he’s bent rules for his own convenience. He may never have given or taken a bribe, but he’s been carrying on an affair with Sandra (Mălina Manovici), a young teacher at Eliza’s school. Magda has known about it, but has looked the other way, just as the rest of society does with the corruption and bribery that most people use to actually get things done.

The interactions with his mother (Alexandra Davidescu) are a little more confusing. She’s old and beginning to suffer from some health problems, but he insists on treating her himself and keeping her away from the rest of the medical system, even as she clearly needs more care than he can provide. But this is the key that unlocks Mungiu’s insight about what really drives men like Romeo, whether in Romania or in the United States: maintaining the illusion of control.

The desire to protect and provide as many advantages as possible for one’s children is a particularly middle-class phenomenon, because it’s the middle class that’s caught between the threat of the unexpected and the idea that they can maintain control over it. People in the upper class, with resources enough to handle any eventuality, have no real worries about what might happen. And people in the working classes are well accustomed to the idea that things will happen to them that they can’t control. It’s only in the middle where people feel the threat and the pinch, and fear the loss of control. Bacalaureat watches what happens to a man who finds the control he thought he’d established beginning to slip away.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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