A runaway gypsy slave in early 19th-century Wallachia is hunted down by a constable and his son in Radu Jude’s most accomplished and original feature yet, “Aferim!” In his two previous films, Jude’s leitmotif was people’s inhumanity to one another, full of power games and humiliations. Here he stays true to the theme, using this black-and-white uber-oater to trace the roots of Romanian society’s less positive characteristics. While its tone is occasionally overly strident, “Aferim!” is an exceptional, deeply intelligent gaze into a key historical period, done with wit as well as anger. Fests will certainly check in, with possible Euro sales among specialty distribs.
“Aferim!” is an Ottoman Turkish expression meaning “bravo!,” a word used with deep irony in the film but one that can equally be directed, without any irony, at the director. A great deal of the freshness lies in the way Jude dispenses with traditional historical-film trappings even while cleaving to the classic structure of fugitive-hunting Westerns. There’s nothing staid or prettified here, and while a significant amount of background research is on show, the helmer uses it to re-create an atmosphere rather than a specific, sacrosanct event.
While we’re told that the action takes place in 1835 Wallachia, there are no background title cards to place the era in context; their absence may confound some viewers, yet it’s refreshing not to have to rely on such an un-cinematic, often inelegant device. Besides, a keen-eyed audience (and unquestionably, “Aferim!” is made with the intelligent arthouse consumer in mind) should be able to glean a wealth of information from the small details, including shifts in language and significant variations in dress. The choice of year is key, when the principality was still nominally Ottoman, but controlled by Russia. In addition, until 1856, Roma were chattel to be bought and sold.
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Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban in a welcome lead role) has been hired by a boyar (landowner) to bring back his fugitive gypsy slave Carfin, accused of seducing his wife and running away. With teen son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) in tow, the constable accosts peasants and Roma with brutal impunity, cursing and beating anyone who may have information. Only churchmen are shown a modicum of respect, though as major slave owners themselves, priests have an interest in ensuring the renegade is caught.
Carfin (Cuzin Toma) is finally hauled out of hiding in the house of a peasant craftsman and his wife (Victor Rebengiuc and Luminita Gheorghiu, in tiny parts) along with Roma child runaway Tintiric (Alberto Dinache). Draped over the constable’s horse, with his feet in wooden stocks, Carfin begs to be let go, trying to impress his captors with stories of being brought to Leipzig, Vienna and Paris, and when that doesn’t work, explaining that the boyar’s wife actually seduced him. Costandin refuses to budge but assures him the boyar will only whip him; of course, once they reach their destination, the landowner (Alexandru Dabija) has another punishment in mind.
Like quite a few of the Eastern bloc countries, Romania churned out a number of horse operas in the Soviet era, closely based on their American counterparts and using the hilly landscape in similar ways. Jude resurrects the genre with a far sharper edge, since his goal is to trace elements he derides in contemporary society to their 19th-century ancestors. With his shockingly obscene mouth, blithe bullying and tendency toward self-pity, the constable could easily be a character in either “The Happiest Girl in the World” or “Everybody in Our Family.” To make certain his message is clear (perhaps too clear), Jude has Costandin question whether people in 200 years will remember all he and his kind did for them: “We smoothed the way.”
Equally horrific are the clergy, ignorant and bent on maintaining their power and privilege. In the funniest scene, Costandin and Ionita help a priest (Alexandru Bindea) whose cart has broken down: The churchman goes through a litany of ethnicities, tossing off stereotypes in a hilarious rant that saves its most excoriating bon mots for the Jews — though the lines aren’t directed lifted from one of the many contemporary texts Jude and co-scripter Florin Lazarescu consulted, they unquestionably reflect the pervasive prejudices of the era (and not only that era).
In keeping with its oater antecedents, “Aferim!” has a road-movie structure, which means the narrative has a careful linearity that passes from one situation to the other without any doubling back or recurring side characters. To maintain a sense of rhythm, Jude and Lazarescu occasionally allow the diatribes to be pitched at too high a level, and there’s a feeling of repetition in the constant flow of aphorisms flowing off the constable’s vulgar tongue. Yet these are easily ignored since the thrust is so pointed.
It couldn’t have been easy for the actors, especially Toma, slung over a horse with his feet tied for much of the film, yet they’re all topnotch. Especially striking is ace lenser Marius Panduru’s terrific 35mm black-and-white visuals, keenly attentive to a sense of tone and reminiscent at times of 19th-century photographs. A closeup or two of Carfin would have increased a sense of the slave as a complex character, but his humanity certainly still comes through. Also deserving of praise are Dana Paparuz’s superb costumes and the excellent sound design. The little bit of Turkish and Roma dialogue isn’t subtitled, in order to distinguish languages and make clear their hierarchies.