In short: Eliza is sexually assaulted one day before her 'bacalaureat', the final set of high-school exams students sit in Romania. She had been awarded a conditional scholarship at a university in the UK, but her impairment, both mental and physical, poses a threat to her getting the grades she needs. Cue in the father, Romeo, a local doctor, whose life is about to encounter quite the upheaval in his desire to ensure Eliza fulfills his own botched 'destiny' of leaving the country. Things take a turn for the complicated as he is more or less inadvertently offered an opportunity to guarantee the results his daughter needs. The circuit of corruption is as informal as it is intricate - a friend of a friend situation, one hand washes the other kind of thing. And beyond all this mess, Romeo also has to keep up the facade of his marriage, while dating a single mother, Sandra, who happens to be a teacher at Eliza's high-school.
What makes Bacalaureat instantly and distinctively good is the attention to detail, which breeds both familiarity and authenticity. But unlike Mungiu's previous major success, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the grimness does not stem from the subject matter, or the dry (non-)stylization of the story, but from how intertwined the many strands of this one case prove to be. Shadowing the father along it is painful because his shortcomings are obvious from afar. But it is his demise that is so important to ensure a new generation comes along which will set itself apart from the current one. He is tragic, because not only can he not escape his destiny, but he doesn't recognize his role in propagating that which he abhors. Romeo's willingness to compromise in order to ensure his daughter's chance of being the change he desires is part of the hereditary disease plaguing any such social construction.
Taking a wider view, it isn't coincidental that every moral-institutional junction is safeguarded by a man - a doctor, a police officer, a former mayoral figure, a school commissioner, a prosecutor. Contrasting this are the female characters, the strength of Eliza, the stoicism of Sandra, the wisdom of Romeo's wife, Magda. It's a battle of utilitarian and deontological ethics, posing the question of whether moral pragmatism can be moral at all. There is little doubt where Mungiu sides, as the male 'keywardens' are at least one of: cynical, unfeeling, self-serving, hypocritical. Masculine instincts are both highlighted ('it wasn't a rape, it was just a sexual assault!') and criticized. Even as it seems that a pair of male characters come along that are understanding and humane, there is a strong pinch of self-interest that dictates terms, which is why they are punished with a fine ironic touch by the director.
For all that happens, there are two scenes which summarize the journey we are on. Firstly, when 'someone' (life?) throws a stone at the apartment Romeo's family is living in, thereby breaking a window, he rushes out confidently, as if finding the culprit were a matter of when, rather than if. Then, towards the end of the film, as Romeo's life unravels by the virtue of his poor choices, he decides to venture after the assumed perpetrator of the assault on his daughter; now, however, he loses the trail instantly, finds himself wandering confused in the shadows of apartment buildings, jumping at every unexpected noise coming his way. The grip, the control over how society is run, ever loosening.
If anything, I would criticize Mungiu for being overly and overtly moralistic. There are several moments where characters are used as props to portray said moral perspectives, scenes which feel artificial and pedagogically pedantic. Also, the bureaucratic coldness conveyed by almost all officials (one moment dictating an official statement concerning Eliza's rape, the next discussing trivialities) feels uninspiring by now - there is a sense that themes are contained within a national frame, that our sole focus is alleviating the burdens of the past, more than the challenges of the present. And although this is hinted at during the film, the matter of exam fraud was as rooted as it is illustrated here about ten years ago, when I myself was finishing high-school. Hence, it feels against the times in a way, but then this can also be viewed as the last vestiges of an era, Romeo's solution being retrograde especially in such a light.
Bickering aside, creating such a complex and highly integrated story that feels true to itself almost all the way is quite splendid indeed. It's not an easy ride for viewers, who will suffer the pain of compromise, of systemic contortion against the individual - ultimately, Romeo has good intentions, the world just seems to require of him to do what he does, to right a wrong with a wrong. Yet, it remains the individual that decides, which is why the 'bacalaureat' is such an important stepping stone for change and for maturity. Mungiu's film is a comment on the precipice we are finding ourselves on now, where we see the change more clearly, are even enacting it, but it is the follow-up that will define us as a people, as a generation. Funnily enough, he proves to be an optimist.