Double the Drama: Graduation, Neruda Hit Chi Film Fest Cum Laude

Resident film critic Kenneth claps back with a double-feature review.


Cristian Mungiu

In Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, a father (Adrian Titieni) struggles with his daughter’s (Maria-Victoria Dragus) sexual assault ahead of her final exams.

By Kenneth Talbott La Vega

Check out Kenneth’s running coverage of high-profile films screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in the next two weeks. His second and third reviews of the series tackle Graduation, a drama by Cristian Mungiu, and Neruda, a drama written by Guillermo Calderón and directed by Pablo Larraín.

Mungiu is a titan of the Romanian New Wave movement, whose notable works include 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), for which he won the Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and Beyond the Hills (2012). Graduation premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Mungiu shared the Best Director award with French director Olivier Assayas.

Larraín is Chile’s foremost rising filmmaker, best known for No (2012), which garnered Chile its first Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Academy Awards, and The Club (2015), which won top awards for direction and screenplay at last year’s Chi Film Fest. Neruda premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes this year. Besides Neruda, Larraín also directed Jackie (2016), the highly anticipated biopic on Jacqueline Kennedy.

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“We live in a world and society that is not very moral but is made up of people who believe they are moral,” Mungiu said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. This attitude cleanly expresses the thematic crux of Graduation, which follows a father who struggles with handling the sexual assault of his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) immediately before her final exams. The father, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), has invested a great deal in his daughter’s education to secure her a scholarship and life free from the limitations of their small Romanian town, but neither is possible unless her exams go well. As Eliza attempts to cope with the consequences of her assault, Romeo throws his personal ethics into question by undertaking shady measures to ensure his daughter’s academic triumph.

As an exploration of morality, Graduation is an absolute knock-out. Mungiu’s formal style, representative of the archetypal Romanian New Wave film, does wonders for the subject matter he attempts to tackle: The use of camerawork to produce routine long shots is resourceful and spatially conscious, with sparse editing enhancing the film’s realist tone. Content-wise, Mungiu especially wins with his use of verbal motifs. Often, Romeo and Eliza are told that “it could have been worse,” and in other scenes Romeo will regularly remind Eliza that her prospects for education abroad are “what she deserves.” The manner in which Mungiu intersperses these and other phrases is integral in his provocation of subjects like fairness, truth, intention, and justice.

However, there is more to these matters than meets the eye. Beyond the façade of a father facing an ethical dilemma for his daughter’s well-being, Romeo is an adulterer in a loveless marriage and a meddlesome networker in the small town’s spheres of education, medicine, and criminal justice. These aspects of Romeo’s narrative provide frameworks for critical, symptomatic approaches toward the patriarchal mechanisms and systemic corruption that haunt post-Communist Romania.

As the film progresses, and Romeo’s behavior and actions become more problematic, his unethical interventions waver between matters of personal justice and self-interest. Graduation sets up a challenging but universal dialectic between the desire for agency and the innate obligation to be righteous. These concepts are never black and white on their own, and Mungiu captures their fluidity and casts them onto the screen with discretion and poise. Ultimately, Graduation is a unique and essential addition to Mungiu’s oeuvre that ought not to be missed.

Graduation runs 128 minutes in Romanian with English subtitles. It will screen Saturday, October 15 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 16 at 8:15 p.m. Individual tickets and festival passes are available online at

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The underlying concept of Pablo Larraín’s Neruda is that it ought to be a biopic of the eponymous Nobel Prize–winning Communist Chilean poet and diplomat. But what does it mean to pay homage to a man of such unique lifestyle, eclectic talents, and almost folkloric legacy? For Larraín, to begin to answer this requires constructing a bold, impressionistic narrative form that stands virtually without precedent in the history of biopics. If this sounds grandiose, that’s because it is.

The film itself boasts a dreamlike lucidity and visual lyricism, much like Neruda’s literary voice. For example, Larraín cross-cuts emotional conversation between different angles and settings in a continuous edit, producing an effect somewhere in between reality and verisimilitude. Such methods attest to Larraín’s poetic dispositions on an individual basis; on a larger scale, the film is not so much concerned with telling a story about a good guy and a bad guy. Often enough, the viewer will dislike Neruda (Luis Gnecco) and other times they’ll sympathize with the investigator (Gael García Bernal) hired to arrest him. Rather, the film relishes in its own journey, seeking the universal pleasure of falling headfirst into a well-fashioned poem.

Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón run a serious risk by attempting to pull off this biopic with such unconstrained panache. Yet Neruda just narrowly skirts sinking into kitsch, chiefly due to the gravity of its political scope; in the same vein, the film manages to avoid pretension by way of its heartfelt authenticity. Ultimately, Neruda succeeds in its balancing of substance with style, sincerity with whimsy—think the Wes Andersonian sangfroid that lent Grand Budapest Hotel its character.

The question of how Larraín ought to make a Pablo Neruda biopic still remains unanswered because, in a sense, Neruda is not actually a biopic. The sum of all things dialogic, visual, and stylistic, Neruda can best be described as a delirious romantic ode to the artistic legacy of its eponym, and to the whole body of art born from the Chilean revolutionary movements—an enterprise that was often just as prodigious as its political counterparts. I think Neruda himself would have thoroughly appreciated this film.

Neruda runs 108 minutes in Spanish with English subtitles. It will screen Sunday, October 16 at 7:30 p.m. and Monday, October 17 at 8:15 p.m. Neruda screenwriter Guillermo Calderón is scheduled to attend both screenings. Individual tickets and festival passes are available online at

(Plus: the Chicago International Film Festival will also be holding a special screening of Larraín’s Jackie on Monday, October 17 at 7:30 p.m. before it hits U.S. theaters on December 2, 2016)