Telluride 43: “Graduation”

“Graduation” is a gripping depiction of pervasive corruption in contemporary Romania. Cristian Mungiu, who also wrote the screenplay, received the Best Director Award at Cannes. This film is even stronger than Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”.

Cristian Mungiu at Telluride

Before the film’s screening at Telluride, Mungiu said the inspiration of the film was the process of his “being a father”. While some of his fellow citizens have left Romania, Mungiu believes it is better to stay and attempt to change conditions.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a rare doctor who has remained honest in a system where even doctors are bribed for service. He is hopeful that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) will receive a scholarship for the UK, and thus have options unavailable to him and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar). A violent act against Eliza may affect her performance on the examination that determines if she will be able to study outside Romania.

Adrian Titieni and Maria-Victoria Dragus in “Graduation”

As a father, Romeo is determined to do whatever is necessary for his daughter to have an education abroad. There is also family discord as Eliza begins to develop an independence from her father. Adrian Titieni gives a powerful performance as the highly conflicted father. Mungiu builds an acute tension as Romeo becomes involved in a web of complications and he must face the choice of compromising his integrity by making secret deals to give his daughter a better life. “What does all we taught her count?” is asked.

Maria-Victoria Dragus and Adrian Titieni and in “Graduation”

Telluride 43: “Toni Erdmann”

The unique German film “Toni Erdmann” stood out at the Telluride Film Festival. Guest director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) accurately emphasized its originality by describing it as a cross “between Bergman and Borat”. The emotional relationships of the former are combined with the bizarre disguises of the later.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in "Toni Erdmann"

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in “Toni Erdmann”

I very much enjoyed a conversation with the film’s lead actor Peter Simonischek at a press dinner sponsored by Sony Pictures Classics, the film’s distributor. Simonischek described the film to me as about a father (his character) who has drifted apart from his daughter and his attempt to get closer to her. The father uses practical jokes and a fake identity in attempting to reconnect. Simonischek spoke about his extensive stage experience of over 40 years in Germany, including performing in American plays.

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival   (c) Ed Scheid

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

In “Toni Erdmann”, Winifried (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced piano teacher who now lacks a student. His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is a workaholic corporate strategist. The time Ines has devoted to her career has given her little personal time and little inclination to spend it with her father. Ines’ latest posting is in Bucharest, a city adjusting to modern capitalism. The city now has a modern, generic mall where merchandise is too expensive for most citizens.

Winfried shows up in Bucharest disguised in an unruly wig and over-sized teeth. He tells his daughter’s work contacts that he is Toni Erdmann, a life coach at the same corporation as his daughter. Director Maren Ade who wrote the ingenious screenplay has said the teeth were inspired by a gag set she was given at the premiere of “Austin Powers”.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek (center) in "Toni Erdmann"

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek (center) in “Toni Erdmann”

Ines is initially shocked at her father’s ruse but is forced to play along. She asks him “Are you trying to ruin me? … Have you gone insane?

As director and writer, Ade does a masterful job of combining eccentric comedy with an undercurrent of poignancy as the father tries to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. Ade said “Humor is his only weapon and he starts using it to the hilt.” The film is full of clever and unexpected twists. A highlight is a hilarious team-building exercise.

Peter Simonischek  and Sandra Huller in "Toni Erdmann"

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller in “Toni Erdmann”

Simonischek and Huller create distinctive characterizations and play well off of each other. Winifred/Toni’s outrageous behavior contrasts well with Ines’ humorlessness.

“Toni Erdmann” is a remarkable film that remains absorbing and sustains humor throughout a running time of over 2.5 hours.

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival   (c) Ed Scheid

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff had an insightful post-screening Q&A with Peter Simonischek. They mentioned as background that Germany and Romania have a consulting connection as Romania’s socialist economy moves into a capitalist system.

Simonischek said that Maren Ade writes a scene and gives the actors “lots of time to rehearse and make inventions”, adding to the singular style of the film. He added that in 56 shooting days, there was “not one bad day:”