In a small Romanian city, there are stray dogs everywhere. They wander through parking lots and run across highways. Living alone on the streets, it is understood that no happiness awaits them, and as such, they serve as a cautionary tale for Romeo (Adrien Titieni), a middle-aged surgeon whose comfortable existence teeters on the edge of annihilation. Over the course of a few days, he stands to lose his family and his career, becoming a stray dog himself.

It’s tempting to read Cristian Mungiu’s exemplary film Graduation as a social document about a country still finding its way after the fall of Communism, but the personal drama is so well acted and sharply observed that it stands on its own, free of context. Romeo is a tragic figure. He has a life most men would envy: a sterling professional reputation, brilliant daughter, a beautiful wife, and even a gorgeous, red-headed mistress who doesn’t ask for much. But when a simple act of violence threatens to unravel his carefully laid plans, he responds with desperation, committing a series of blunders that only serve to hasten his own obsolescence.

On her way to the first of three final exams, his daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus), is attacked by an armed assailant outside of her school. She survives but is shaken, and her inability to perform on her exams might void her scholarship to Cambridge. Desperate to see his daughter achieve more than him, Romeo sets off on a journey through the Romanian bureaucracy, visiting the police, school officials, and customs agents, trying to secure Eliza’s future without crossing any legal lines.

Graduation is a tense and emotional drama about one man’s heartbreaking determination to hold onto his illusions. As Romeo, Titeni cuts an unremarkable form: short, pudgy, and pragmatic. But he moves slowly and smoothly through the frame as if on wheels, making his way in and out of bureaucratic offices without leaving a trail. The meetings in which these deals are done are largely without arm-twisting. There is a touching, unspoken bond between him and the officials whose help he seeks, as if, having been raised in an oppressive state, they share a common suffering and instinctively seek to lift each other up. 

Regardless, Romeo is drowning. Every step he takes to secure Eliza’s future seems to push her further away. She values honesty, but he needs her to lie and cheat. She catches him with his mistress and demands that he reveal his lies to his fragile wife. Meanwhile, the police start to investigate Romeo’s backroom maneuvering. As the walls close in, Romeo becomes more desperate. Despite its socio-political texture, it feels like a universal story of middle age. If only Romeo could learn to let go, the inevitable changes in his life could be smoother and less painful. His thrashing about in the water only tires him out.

With a propulsive script and expert staging, director Cristian Mungiu deeply involves the viewer in Romeo’s struggle. When a character is being confronted with an unpleasant truth or emotional reality, he keeps their back to the camera, allowing us to imagine how the dialogue is impacting them. It’s a powerfully effective technique that heightens our emotions and engages us further in the story. With shrewd filmmaking and emotional sensitivity, Mungiu creates meaning and symbolism in every shot without ever losing the poetry of the moment. You can read politics into it if you want, but the film’s simple, human drama doesn’t require it.

Graduation opens Friday at E Street Cinema.