It is impossible to tell from the opening shot of Baccalaureate - a street level view of a group of low-level, poor quality apartment buildings - whether we are in pre- or post-1989 Romania. It is a scene we return to again and again and it becomes clear as the film progresses that the physical lack of change it displays so clearly is paralleled in many less visible areas of Romanian life as well.
The action of the film begins inside a ground floor apartment in one of the buildings, where the main character, a surgeon, lives with his wife, an enigmatic semi-invalid who smokes constantly & with whom he no longer shares a bed, & his daughter, who has been offered a scholarship to Cambridge, provided she scores a very high mark in her final school exams.
It is the morning of the girl's Romanian exam. The father & daughter are preparing to leave when a stone flies through the sitting room window. The father goes out in search of the person responsible but finds no one. He then takes the daughter to school but drops her round the back rather than right outside the building , as he is in a hurry. The next scene reveals that he is in a hurry to see his lover. While he kisses her, his telephone rings. His daughter has been attacked on her way to school.
A chain of events spools out from this disaster, revealing to the audience that the corrupt old habits of favours and influence still hold sway in Romania. The father, whose desperate passion is for his child to get out of Romania, is, in his efforts to free her, ensnared in the mesh he wants her to escape - and quite possibly drags her down with him.
As well as being a portrayal of a society still profoundly damaged by the years it was subjected to misrule, the film also raises questions about parental ambition. The lead character only has his child's best interests at heart but he never stops to think about whether she will actually be happy if she does fulfil his dream of leaving Romania and studying at Cambridge. She has friends and a boyfriend and, left to her own devices, it is fairly clear that she would prefer to go to Kolodsvar to study.
We know that the boyfriend in whom the daughter seems to be investing rather a lot, emotionally, is utterly worthless. Nevertheless, can parents live their children's lives for them or undo their own mistakes through them - the father came back to Romania, post-1989, and now regrets it and this is fuelling the intensity of his desire that his daughter escape. Surely, it is she who will have to conceive her own desperation to leave, she who will have to make what she will of the life she has been given. In the father's overbearing drive to direct his daughter's existence, could there be a parallel with the paternalistic attitude of the old regime?
The film is intriguing, with several surreal or, for want of a better word, faintly dreamlike elements. The line-up scene at the police station, comes to mind, along with the scene in which the daughter suddenly asks her father a question about his driving, and that in which he weeps in the dark beside the road - not to mention the recurring mystery of the stone thrower, (who continues to harass the father throughout the film, a persistent reminder that unexpected events have a habit of erupting into the calm of the everyday, derailing order and careful plans).
Although the characters of the mother and the lover are not entirely satisfactory, the film is wonderfully haunting and thought provoking. I like the very immediate way Mungiu shoots his films; you are always right there beside the character or just behind his shoulder. When indoors, you can somehow feel the walls of the room around you, rather than having a sense of being a distant viewer. When a character is hurrying down alleys and round the corners of buildings, you have the impression of clattering along the broken pavement too, right on their heels. I would like to have seen quite a lot more of the lover's little boy who was a most intriguing figure but, apart from that, I did not feel anything was missing. Baccalaureate is worth a look.