Nearly a decade on, Cristian Mungiu's Palme D'or-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) continues to be one of the most devastating films I've ever watched. His latest, Graduation (originally Bacalaureat), which kicked off my second day at the 18th Mumbai Film Festival, is a tragedy of much smaller and more recognisable proportions, but no less effective.
Fittingly, its central character is named Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a portly, well-to-do doctor in his 50s as well as the throes of a raging midlife crisis. His marriage to Magda (Lia Bugnar) has crumbled and he is having an affair with the young teacher Sandra (Malina Manovici). He has big dreams for his teenaged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), in the final year of high school: a scholarship to study and eventually live in the UK, far away from the problems of their hometown, Cluj.
An incident derails this plan. Days before her exam, Eliza is attacked by an unknown man outside her school, who attempts to rape her but fails. Romeo is shaken by this but he's also quick to insist that his daughter, who sprained her wrist while fighting off the attacker, is "not a rape victim"; she was merely attacked. He wants her to finish writing her final exam, now even more convinced that she needs to follow his carefully chalked-out plan for her.
Graduation is more conventional in form than Mungiu's breakout film. Romeo's well-meaning actions in the aftermath of what happens with Eliza set off a chain reaction of events, we see his well-constructed façade crumbling. The writing is solid and beautifully fleshed out — every character gets its due — and the performances, particularly those by Titieni and Dragus, are marvelous. Romeo's tragedy is gradual and one we see playing out in reality all the time, based on the unfortunate, misguided belief that the world will be on your side simply because you have good intentions. Mungiu won Best Director (shared with Olivier Assayas) at Cannes this year for his incredibly restrained hold on proceedings here, a richly deserved honour.
Speaking of which, I also caught Ken Loach's new Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake yesterday. It stars comedian Dave Johns in the titular role, as a widowed Newcastle carpenter who has recently suffered a heart attack. He's in a bit of a conundrum, though — his doctor won't let him go back to work, while the powers-that-be won't give him his benefits, because a medical health professional from their side (whom we never see) has deemed him fit to seek employment.
British bureaucracy is frustrating in a whole different way from the kind we're familiar with. Here, government employees tend to be lazy, corrupt, and unethical; there, they're obsessed with procedure to the point of irrationality. I remember feeling a similar kind of despair and helplessness during a brief stint in the UK as a student a few years ago while dealing with by-the-book National Health Service officials. It resulted in me shelling out a ridiculous sum of money for something extremely minor, all because of a complicated loophole.
Daniel Blake's stakes, of course, are much higher. Loach is a master at portraying a sense of anger against the system and I, Daniel Blake, despite its titular character's calm exterior, simmers with quiet, cold fury throughout. This is masked by many moments of quiet humour, especially in sequences that depict Daniel, a luddite, attempting to use the Internet, in accordance with the UK's digital-only obsession.
Accompanying Daniel on this journey is Katie (Hayley Squires, who resembles Mila Kunis), a single mother from London struggling to provide for her two children. While Squires' is downright fantastic, the script forces her character to make some clichéd decisions. Loach's control over the material is masterful, but there are portions that feel a tad clunky; this is aggravated by an inexplicable overuse of fade-to-blacks. A much-talked-about scene at a food-bank is appropriately affecting, but doesn't quite scale the emotional heights we've seen in Loach's previous films (although, to be fair, very few things can top the look in Cillian Murphy's eyes at the end of The Wind That Shakes The Barley).
Bookings continued to be chaotic on day 2 (online booking was selling out in minutes, but seats for the same shows seemed to be available at venues) but what's notable is that this year, the lines seem to be more manageable and it seems to be easier to get into any screening even without a booking. Is it because there are more screens, spread out evenly across the city, or are there fewer attendees?
My day ended with German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin's Goodbye Berlin (originally Tschick), a lightweight road trip comedy based on a cult novel by Wolfgang Herrndof. Maik Klingenber (Tristan Gobel), a privileged-but-awkward 14-year-old with raging hormones but low self-esteem, finds unlikely company in Tschick (Anand Batbileg), am obnoxious new student who is immediately loathed by everyone in their class.
The two steal a broken-down Lada (a car of Russian make) to embark upon a road-trip that checks off every road-trip movie box. Narrow escapes? Check. Getting lost? Check. A chance, romantic encounter that ends on a bittersweet note, but with a hint of hope for the future? Check. Rousing, choppily edited montages set to popular music? Check. As a friend remarked, Goodbye Berlin is less a festival film and more a middling Netflix original. It's the kind of mildly, superficially entertaining film you can watch without taxing your brain too much, but perhaps one could argue that that isn't what film festivals are all about.
This is a daily series of articles documenting the 18th Mumbai Film Festival. Read about day 1 here.