Cristian Mungiu prefers to talk about cinema, not movies. The Romanian filmmaker, who won a Palme d’Or at Cannes for his breakout 2007 film, the harrowing abortion-themed drama ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,’ prefers words like auteur to director. But his body of work is as unpretentious and down-to-earth as it gets, with themes of corruption and moral compromise that are pulled up – by the roots – from the soil of real life. That gritty and honest storytelling instinct led to an early career as a journalist, before Mungiu turned to film school in Bucharest, graduating in 1998. The director, who turns 49 this month, phoned from that city to talk about his latest Cannes award winner, ‘Graduation,’ in which a doctor (Adrian Titieni) bends the rules to help his teenage daughter (Maria Dragus) – the victim of a sexual assault – pass a test to get a scholarship to a college in the United Kingdom.
Through the use of long, uncomfortable scenes, often shot with minimal camera movement – a Mungiu trademark – ‘Graduation’ explores that moral gray area that lies in the shadows between idealism and real life.
What did winning the 2007 Palme d’Or mean for your career?
It’s the validation that we wish for when we go to the film school here, for the kind of cinema that we do. Not so much the Oscar, because we don’t go to a film school that makes us believe that we will ever be able to make it to the States. What we try to be is auteurs, writing our own screenplays, setting a point of view about cinema. It had never happened for a Romanian, before this film of mine. It brings a lot of pressure, to be honest, because people start comparing whatever you do with what you did before: “Well, yes, but I liked the other one better.” It brings a very precise benefit in that my films, from that point onward, started being distributed in 40, 50, 60 countries.
Has exposure made financing easier?
It’s a big difference, but to be honest, it wasn’t very complicated for me to finance ‘4 Months,’ which is a film that I produced myself for, I think, $1 million. Even now, with the Palme d’Or, I prefer to do small-budget films: $2 million, $3 million, $4 million.
When you use the word “we,” are you talking about filmmakers of the so-called Romanian new wave – of which you are the best-known example – or European filmmakers in general or simply people who make the kind of small, realistic films you are known for?
I’m rather thinking about a way of making cinema. It’s not a national way. I’m thinking more about some auteurs who make this very personal cinema, which is focused mainly on what you have to say, and not so much on the public success that the film will have.
Can you give examples?
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish director (‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’); Michael Haneke (‘Amour’); or the Dardenne brothers (‘Two Days, One Night’); a lot of French auteurs; Carlos Reygadas in Mexico (‘Silent Light’). People like this who do something rather more radical – some of them more radical than others – but something personal. And they’re not necessarily all realistic either. What we do here, those of us in the Romanian new wave, is probably more realistic – and there are one or two of them that I could include in this “we” – but it’s just a position that all these people have toward cinema, which comes with an ethics, an understanding of why you do things the way you do. We think a lot about our means as a filmmaker. Nobody forces us to do anything. It’s our conscience alone that dictates what kind of means to use.
You’ve said that the idea for ‘Graduation’ came from thinking about an inherent contradiction of parenting, a contradiction that could be summed up by the expression “Do as I say, not as I do.” Is that where it came from?
It could be, but honestly, if you think about where a film starts, it’s more complicated than that. I spend a lot of time with my (12- and 7-year-old) children, thinking about their future, about parenting, thinking that if I decide to educate them for living here in Romania, that’s only one kind of education. If I decide to educate them for leaving the country, as in the film, it’s very different, and people have to make this choice very early now. The idea also started from my idea about this relationship between compromise as a personal choice and corruption as a social phenomenon.
The title ‘Graduation’ refers to the process of formal education but also suggests a transition from a tiny immoral act to a larger one. Is there a lesson in the film?
I try to avoid being didactic. What I try to do is just present a complex story, with all the motivations of all the characters, hoping that the audience will be curious enough to analyse all this, not so much in relation to the story, but to their own lives. I try to reach the same cinematic values, if you will, that an American thriller might reach, but only by using material inspired by everyday life. I hope the film can be seen as something that could happen to anybody, anywhere, because it’s about human nature. Of course it could be seen as carrying messages, but I try not to have these messages very clearly directed as coming from me.
Your films are said to avoid judgment about the characters, who aren’t always pure of heart, or even good. Is that something you learned from your work as a journalist?
I would not say it comes from journalism. It comes from the need to allow spectators their freedom. They are not stupid. It’s not okay to make films with a very clear message. Journalism brought to me this idea of being curious about a lot of things. It also helped me to create a style of storytelling – first with words, but later one that I turned into a way of storytelling with images, with time.