When Cristian Mungiu goes to the Cannes Film Festival, he’s an internationally renowned filmmaker, with the distinction of being the first Romanian to win the venerated Palme d’Or. That was over a decade ago, when Mungiu’s abortion thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” took the festival’s top prize. His subsequent features, “Beyond the Hills” and “Graduation,” have also played in its Official Selection. Mungiu continues to travel the world and land raves for his sociopolitical cinema, which explores the country’s problems on an intimate scale.
But that hasn’t made it any easier to get his movies seen back home.
Ever since the success of his sophomore feature “4 Months,” Mungiu has self-distributed his work in Romania, reviving a caravan-style approach to screening movies in small towns that was once used to show Soviet propaganda films during the Communist era. Now, the model is filling a gap in the marketplace for independent film.
In the United States, Mungiu’s last three features — “4 Months,” the religious drama “Beyond the Hills,” and “Graduation,” which opens this week — have been released by IFC Films. That allows them to play across the country in addition to being widely available on digital platforms. No such resources exist to release films outside of the major cities in Romania, which is particularly dispiriting for a director whose movies focus on settings and themes that resonate beyond the bubble of big cities. “I want people to see these films,” Mungiu told IndieWire last fall, while in town for the New York Film Festival, “but we have so few theaters and audiences,” which has made it difficult for traditional distributors to release his films across the country.
In “Graduation,” the director turns his attention to corruption in the education system. The movie, told with Mungiu’s trademark slow-burn pace and somber mood, focuses on the frantic efforts of middle-aged surgeon Romeo (Adrian Titieni) to rescue his daughter’s opportunity to develop her career. After 18-year-old Eliza (Maria Dragus) suffers a sexual assault that impacts her academic performance, she risks losing her scholarship to a prestigious British university. The bleak scenario grows increasingly suspenseful as Romeo attempts to cut a deal with the school’s administrative figures that would help the young woman cheat on her final exams. The conflict only deepens once Eliza herself resists the approach, setting up a generational conflict that pits moral responsibilities against Romeo’s desire for his daughter to escape their impoverished surroundings for a better life outside of the country.
Mungiu based aspects of the story on media reports of rampant cheating throughout the nation’s capital. “The problem is this huge complicity with parents, teachers and youngsters,” said the filmmaker, who has children of his own. “How can we ever expect this society to change? We always say that optimism is associated with the next generation. It’s not rational to imagine that the next generation will be different from us unless we acknowledge some of the decisions we’ve made are not OK. I reflect a lot on this.”
Needless to say, it’s yet another story from a director whose work speaks to a national mindset, which is why he remains devoted to getting his work seen around the country. After “4 Months” won the Palme, Mungiu organized screenings of the film in 15 Romanian cities, and estimates that some 17,500 people saw the film this way. He followed the same pattern last year for “Graduation,” bringing the movie to approximately 10,000 people across 20 cities.
The traveling caravan model, which other Romanian filmmakers have adopted in recent years, has allowed Romanian audiences nationwide to gain familiarity with the Romanian New Wave that has been widely acknowledged on the festival circuit even as it much of its contents were unavailable on a local level. The loosely-defined community of Romanian filmmakers, which also includes Corneliu Poromboiu (“12:08 East of Bucharest”) and Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”), emerged around a decade ago and catapulted the country’s problems to an international stage with naturalistic films that tend to focus on domestic issues unique to their setting. It has provided an opportunity for a country still reeling from the collapse of Communism and the rise of a capitalist society to hold a mirror up to its current problems.
“From a country that was never known for its cinema, there were a bunch of directors who were all of a sudden expressing themselves,” Mungiu said, adding that his latest film explores the tendency for Romanians to blame their personal hardships on institutional failure. “Growing up during Communist times, people were finding it easier to make excuses,” he said. “Our land was confiscated, so the peasants started stealing. Could you condemn them for doing this? There were not a lot of principles. Compromise is very present in this society.”
Compared with some of his peers, Mungiu works at a very deliberate pace, having completed and released only two features since winning the Palme d’Or. But he said he only has himself to blame: In addition to directing his own scripts, Mungiu produces his films, and refuses to accept private investments, relying solely on government funds and other grants. “It’s not that I don’t want to work faster, but I’m not capable of working that way,” he said. “Everything takes time, but it especially takes time for me to find enough personal things for me to talk about. I don’t read screenplays or pick up a story that I like that somebody else wrote. I try to just find enough relevant things happening next to me that I can use to write something personal.”
As a result, he keeps his budgets low — “Graduation” was made for slightly under $2 million — and never rushes into new projects. He has repeatedly turned down offers to work on projects in other countries. “There’s a lot of freedom that comes from that,” he said. “I think filmmakers should be focused on the best thing they can do, not necessarily the most popular thing available to them.”
“Graduation” opens in New York on April 7, with a national rollout to follow.