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As Close As Possible to Reality: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu

The Romanian New Wave filmmaker discusses "Graduation," for which he won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.
Amir Ganjavie
Adrian Titieni in Graduation
Winner of the Best Director prize at Cannes for Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, Graduation is a tense dramatic conflict between the private and public spheres. As in Antigone, here we have a member of family—a father (Adrian Titieni), in this case—who wants to protect another family member, his daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus), from the moral role of the state. This intent leads him to act against the conventional morality of his time. Seeing no future in Romania, the sacrificing father cannot tolerate the fact that his daughter has not been accepted into a prestigious school in London and is ready to do everything in his power to save her life—even if it is immoral and corrupt. Graduation is a well-crafted drama that pays attention to every detail. Yet Mungiu has not attempted to exhaust his audience with a totally predictable narrative. Instead, he brings elements of mystery and surprise into the story to make us question the situation. This is the conception that the director has regarding the relationship between cinema and reality.

NOTEBOOK: How do you develop the plots of your films? Do you start with the story or the characters? 
CRISTIAN MUNGIU: I don’t start from the characters. I start from the story. I try to have a story which is very realistic and believable and which involves a lot of layers. For example, compromise was one of the things that I had in mind when writing the story for Graduation. However, at the end you can say that I need my films to be as complex as possible. As much as this is a film about compromise, for some other people it’s about corruption. For me though it’s mostly about ageing and the huge difference between the way your life looks when you reach 50 compared to what you imagined that it would be when you were 20. It’s also about how family relationships change in life, portraying someone who feels guilty and disappointed at this age, particularly as that relates to parenting. The film is about a lot of things, which is why I say that it’s about human nature. It’s about this feeling that people sometimes have that their life is not exactly the way that they had hoped it would be, but also that there’s nothing much you can do. You have to keep on living with all the choices that you made. However, this day is a very difficult one in the life of a parent—the day when you’re disappointed with your own life and feel that you can’t change much because the most important decisions of your life are already behind you. Then you invest a lot in your child, and on the day when the child leaves you know that you will have to spend a lot of time with just yourself facing all of these decisions. I thought this was a story worth telling because it speaks about all of us at a certain age.
NOTEBOOK: The content of this story is a little bit different from your previous films. I’m thinking of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, both of which were great. 4 Months portrayed the practice of abortion in communist society, so it was clearly about the struggle between the individual and society. The story of Beyond the Hills was about religion. However, it appears that Graduation is not about a big social issue. It’s not about the contrast between somebody and his surroundings while living in a particular political or religious context. It’s  about family. It’s very personal.
MUNGIU: In very many countries and communities, especially where I come from, this issue of corruption is the biggest issue of today. You can see it around you in society and the way that people react to it. The consequence of this is that people are very disappointed by society and by the life around them and they don’t feel that they have the energy to continue fighting against it. Their response is to just find an individual solution for themselves and for their families, which is always sending their children abroad. This is a very important social issue for me because how can we expect these societies to change if we always find only the individual solution of sending away the elite of the society? These children who have been sent abroad could have learned to fight corruption and improve their society. This is the social layer that it has for me, because we speak about societies which may have progressed a lot in the last 25 years, but rules and regulations are not necessarily respected. This is very disappointing for people because it gives you the feeling that you don’t advance in society based on merit. Instead, you advance in society based on a network of relationships and this is really unhealthy. 
On the other hand, I don’t think that Beyond the Hills, for example, is about orthodox religion. Instead, it’s about the relationship between faith, which is individual, and religion and the church as an institution. This is present in all the religions of the world, not to mention fanaticism. Sometimes I do films which speak about a concrete, precise situation about which you know all the details and I can set it some place, very often at home. However, I hope that the film speaks about something much more important. Even with 4 Months I don’t think that it’s so much about abortion under communism as it is about living in an aggressive society. It’s about making choices in life and taking responsibility for them later on. It’s about sacrifice, friendship, and growing up. Behind all of these very personal stories and individual perspectives; I think and I hope that there is a universal level to it, as I also hope for Graduation. I’ve talked to very many people who have told me, “I have been in exactly the same situation.”  
NOTEBOOK: What I like about Graduation is its simplicity. However, in this simplicity your cinema is very complex. For example, in the police station there are six layers of depth in your composition and in all of the layers people are constantly walking and moving. We see some inside shots of cars but each time is from a different perspective. Yet this level of detail never over-complicated the image or the story.
MUNGIU: All I know is that a lot comes from my original decision about what kind of cinema that I want to make. At some point I decided that, at least for awhile, I want to make this kind of cinema which is largely inspired by life and reality rather than by other films. I decided this because as much as I love cinema, it is already an interpretation of life, so I’d like to just have this inspiration come from life itself. Therefore, I started observing life and how things happen. The aim of what I do in this film is just to make people experience these situations as if they are happening in life. This is why I decided that I would work like this and why I don’t use editing. There is no editing in life. You can’t cut out the things that you don’t like. You have to leave them all and there is no music, either. Nobody will signal to you when it’s time to be emotional or not, and it’s just your own perspective upon things in life. This is why I do things from somebody’s individual perspective. You will always know just as much as he knows and this shapes how you relate them. There are two things that you need to learn. First is how to use the depth of field and second is how to use things that are off-camera. This is because after starting work like this you immediately realize that you can’t have everything in the shot, no matter what you do. You start finally understanding that the world is bigger than what the protagonist, and therefore the audience, sees. You see this in Graduation. However, finally the whole picture is bigger than this and you start working with things that are off-sound and off-camera. In these shots with the police that you are mentioning, what I like a lot is to be as close as possible to this kind of ambiguity and disorganization that you see in life. Of course, in the film you reach it by organizing things very precisely because there is no other way, but the feeling that those things need to give you is that everything is a trend. This is how things happen—all of these kinds of accidents. I do this because I hope that by the end of the film the audience will just have this feeling that what they focused on is not just what I consider to be essential but instead something that comes with all the other small details which belong to life.
NOTEBOOK: You are a very meticulous director, but sometimes there are moments in the story that it is hard to understand rationally. For example, there is a scene in which the father hits something while driving—I think a cat or a dog—and after going to see what it is he goes home, where we see him suddenly wake up in the night. He goes outside and we see him look around, maybe seeing the dead cat, and then he starts to cry. From a rational perspective, it is hard to understand the connection between these scenes, since they are not required for the plot. You are left feeling that there are things that motivate the father in his behavior that may ultimately be unknown to us.
MUNGIU: It is, in a way, driven by what happens. So when he hits something it is right after getting his daughter, who had been attacked, from the hospital and they go back home. The next part of the incident doesn’t happen in continuity during that same day. It happens way later on, after he has made a decision. He decided that, given the situation, he will have to make this compromise. In film, you always have to find external incidents to motivate something that the character feels or thinks about. This is very difficult to do because it’s not literature and you won’t be using words, but you still have to make people understand. For me, he’s crying so much about hitting that dog—or maybe this is the realistic explanation for it. It’s just a way of expressing emotion after making his most important choice in the film, specifically about how he will have to compromise. For me, the film is not only plot-driven in the sense that you see the action. His daughter had an accident. She has problems in school. He has to solve the situation. Some will encourage him to just go talk to somebody else, and he goes in and talks. It’s also seeing a side of his mind so that he has a parallel advancement about truth, his choices, and the girl’s education. If you follow this, that moment comes when he decides that, for once, he will just step aside from this kind of education that he wanted to have for the girl: he admits his defeat and just encourages her to do this for once. This is why I wanted to have that scene.
NOTEBOOK: Let’s talk about the characters. For the most part, I could understand the motives behind their actions. I could relate very well to the father and his characterization makes you understand why he behaved as he did. It was the same for many other characters. However, the girl’s was a little bit complex: it is less obvious why, for example, she suddenly decided not to help her father, why she decided not to cheat on the exam, or why she fell deeply in love with the guy.
MUNGIU: Are you sure of the rationality of all the people that you meet in your life? I don’t think so. And are you sure that people at her age are always very rational about their decisions? I’m not sure. This is also coming from a way of observing life. Do you think that at 17 or 18 years old the girl has a very rational decision behind everything that she does? I don’t think so. I think that always when you make a decision it is a result of a lot of things, including the impulse of the moment. Having said this, you mentioned some specific situations and I have an explanation for each of them. I can tell you precisely why she decided to do what she did in each of those situations. I think that there is a rational thought behind all of them. She challenges her father because her father instructed her to do something which was drastically different from everything that he told her up until that moment. Her reaction then is to challenge him to take the truth out of his own life because she suspects for a long while that something is happening. She decides not to cheat on the exam, as you see at the end of the film, not because the solution is not necessarily moral, but because she found a safer solution. There is always a thought behind her actions but, of course, sometimes they are not so clear and obvious. This is part of a way of making cinema. Actually, I like this one because it helps me to preserve this complexity and unity that I see around me. I think that the world is full of too many American films in which everything is clear. All the characters have a very clear purpose for which they decide like this and like this. That’s not how life goes. If you want to make films inspired by life you need to be a little bit subtler in this.
NOTEBOOK: And that’s how you define the relationship between cinema and reality?
MUNGIU: I think that we need to be as close as possible to reality and this means that when things are not so focused you need some structure in the films that you make.  However, on top of this there is a balance that you need to keep and to let people speak as they speak. People don’t give information to one another about things that they know, so there’s a technique of writing the dialogue in which, even if you as a writer know that you need to pass this information, you can’t really do it because I wouldn’t tell you something that you know already just so you can hear this. You need to find a way of advancing with all of these things that you respect; the necessity of your plot; and at the same time, reality itself.
NOTEBOOK: What you just described reminds me of a tension between sub-stories that I have observed in your movies. There are stories inside your cinema which are not directly related to the main story. We see characters who suddenly emerge and talk about a specific situation which is not somehow related to the whole structure of the film, which has its own narrative, its own logic. This often fits beautifully into the story. For example, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days we have the characters talking about abortion and then we see the girl who is going to talk with her boyfriend—and although they both talk about something that is not very related to the story you still listen to them. 
MUNGIU: Yes, I see what you are saying, but they do talk a lot for me. You know, love stories are narratively driven. For example, in 4 Months there is a lot of insight about the relationship between them in that moment when she speaks with her boyfriend. Of course, they speak about the mother’s anniversary and so on, but you understand that there are classes even in communist society and they don’t belong to the same class. It becomes a comment about why, at the end, they wouldn’t stay together—as much as that society claims that people are equal, their inequality drives them apart. There is a lot of subtext in all of those interactions. On top of that, one of the explanations is that this is how life goes. Yet again, I reject the idea that you need to be so focused in the films so that people just refer to the main storyline. It’s not like this. When you’re having a conversation, you think about a lot of things, so it’s a blend. It’s a mix between using what you need to just go on with the plot, but allowing people to speak about something which is somehow related and would have some subtext which would reveal something that would help you to understand the main plot. In that dinner scene table in 4 Months, for example, what’s important at some point is to see that the girl is not there. She is not listening to what they’re saying. If you watch that scene again, it’s very aggressive. They keep telling her that actually it’s not her fault, and it’s not such a big issue that her parents are not intellectuals, and you know this is very offensive to tell somebody. They were not even talking about this, but they are placing themselves on higher level of the social hierarchy than her, and it’s largely based on stereotypes. There’s a lot in there about their society. The films that I make are very layered. It’s not just the main story line. There’s always a background. There is always the society. There is always the context and the small things that make people decide this or that. I like this a lot in cinema.


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