The Romanian New Wave that stormed into international prominence with The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu in 2005, 12:08 East of Bucharest in 2006, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2007 is still with us, though I think it's fair to say that it lacks the sparkle of the new. Some while ago, the basic ingredients of a Romanian art film that would hit it big in the art houses and film festivals of the world started to ossify: long takes with a typically hand-held camera, bitter comedy, and an unresolved ending to a plot that offered a look at the dying culture of Romania under Ceauşescu, the dying culture of Romania in the 21st Century, or ideally the way that the former influenced the latter. And it has been a little easy to take these films for granted as a result.

Hence I am very glad to have crossed paths with Graduation, a bold and tremendously well-made reminder of what it felt like when the Romanian New Wave was still bright and new. It's the second film written and directed by Cristian Mungiu since his 4 Months... became, for many people (though not me) the high water-mark of the whole national cinema (the interestingly ineffective Beyond the Hills came in between), and if it's not as clearly important as that movie, I honestly don't know that I could argue that it's much, if any, less accomplished a work of art. The politics are more muted, and the story a bit looser, but it sketches out a rough and brutal depiction of corruption in contemporary Romania that feel deeply consequential even as the material of the plot remains pointedly low-scale and intimate.

The generically slippery film centers on middle-aged Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), who lives and works in Cluj, where he remains barely married to Magda (Lia Bugnar) while having an affair with teacher Sandra (Malina Manovici), some 15 years his junior. But the only woman in his wife he truly cares about is his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), in her final year of high school and an academic triumph who has recently received the excellent news of a scholarship to a major university in England, just as soon as she passes her final exams with at least 90% scores. For Romeo and Magda, to whom Romania has been a miserable place to live ever since their hopes of a progressive revolution puked out in the aftermath of Ceauşescu's fall, the thought of Eliza being able to leave the country is the focus of all their hopes. This being a European art film, it's obvious that the inciting incident of the plot will be something that critically endangers this hope.

In particular, Eliza is attacked by a stranger walking through a construction site near school (Romeo had to drop her off early in order to make it to an assignation with Sandra on time; or at least, that's what the editing suggests, and it's all the same thing). Despite Romeo's flustered assurance that it wasn't "rape" according the narrowest definition, Eliza's been thoroughly gutted emotionally by the experience and has no capacity to take her tests, which are inflexible scheduled for the day after the assault. After the first round of tests go poorly, Romeo decides to take initiative in securing Eliza's future, diving head-first into the circle of favors and influence-peddling that makes up the life of any bureaucratic civilisation, taking part in the same system of corruption that he's spent his entire adult life decrying.

There are two primary threads at play in Graduation, the one personal and the other political. On the personal side of things, we have the fact, quickly established and never challenged, that Romeo is a bit of a pathetic shit. His treatment of the two women in his house perfectly encapsulates how and why: he's someone who is only able to deal with problems if they take the form of puzzles to be solved, and the moment that these transmutes into the realm of the psychological, he's useless. Magda is transparently suffering some kind of all-encompassing depression, or at least a crippling case of ennui, which wouldn't be much of a data point except that Romeo's treatment of his daughter is exactly what we can imagine his treatment of his wife looked like years ago: minimising the reality of her emotional pain (whether what happened was a rape or a near-rape, or even that it was sexual in nature at all, is obviously secondary to Eliza's feeling of insecurity and her growing rage at having that feeling left unrecognised), trying to answer it by means of fixing a situation that, so far as we can tell, Eliza doesn't even want anymore. Watching him hectically and desperately ignore the young woman shutting down into depression right before his eyes is more than slightly horrifying; watching him sell his soul in order to do so is tragic in the most classical sense of the word.

That's the other half, of course: how does a person of ideals turn into one more strand in the web of casual corruption eating the country from inside out? And while Graduation would be less gripping without the personal material, it's clearly this social commentary that chiefly energises Mungiu, who depicts the chain of backroom deals and quid pro quo arrangements with the documentary energy that he previously employed in observing the process by which illicit abortions were arranged and executed. There's no moralising presented: there doesn't need to be. It's clear enough watching Titieni's face how much Romeo hates himself for becoming part of this system, and that's all the argument Mungiu needs. Indeed, for all the general excellence of the script, Graduation is a film largely built on the strength of Titieni and Dragus's marvelous performances as two descents into varying forms of depression: self-loathing on his part, post-traumatic shock on hers. They're quite enough to push the film from very good to actively great. Moreover, coupling their intense screen presence with Mungiu generally directing the film with the pacing of a thriller, cutting scenes off before they've quite ended to keep propelling the action forward, and the whole thing ends up being enormously watchable, for something so sober-minded and mirthless. It all ends up as a particularly high point for mid-2010's art cinema, and the best moment of Romanian art cinema in particular from the last several years.