Aferim! (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Produced by Ada Solomon; directed by Radu Jude; screenplay by Radu Jude and Florin Lazarescu; photographed by Marius Panduru; production design by Augustina Stanciu; art direction by Adrian Cristea; edited by Catalin Cristuţiu; starring Teodor Corban, Toma Cuzin, Mihai Comaniou, Alberto Dinache, Alexandru Dajiba, Alexandru Bindea, Mihaela Sirbu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Victor Rebengiuc, Adina Cristescu, Serban Pavlu, Paul Fister, Gabriel Spahiu, and Gheorghe Frunza. DVD and Blu-ray, B&W, Romanian dialogue with English subtitles, 106 min., 2015. A Big World Pictures release.

Radu Jude’s amazing Aferim! will be salutary viewing for anyone who thinks racial stereotyping, ethnic prejudices, and breaches of “political correctness” are at all-time highs in America or elsewhere. Here’s a typically ungrammatical tirade heard about twenty minutes into the film, which takes place in the Wallachia region of Romania in 1835:

Each nation has its purpose: the Jews, to cheat; the Turks to do harm; us Romanians, to love, honor, and suffer like good Christians. And each has their habits: Hebrews reads a lot, Greeks talks a lot, Turks has many wives, Arabs has many teeth, Germans smokes a lot, Hungarians eats a lot, Russians drinks a lot, English thinks a lot, French like fashion a lot, Armenians are lazy, Circasians wears many a lace, Italians lies a lot, Serbians cheats a lot, and Gypsies get many a beating. Gypsies must be slaves…Even among people, most are beasts who must be tamed to make them work. Particularly the crows [Gypsies].

Mihai Comānoiu (Ionitā), Teodor Corban (Costandin) and Cuzin Toma (Carfin).

That’s not coming from a rabble-rousing politico, it’s coming from a priest. His listeners are itinerant officers of the law—a middle-aged constable and the teenage son he’s grooming for the trade—who happen to be traveling his way. The lecture sounds perfectly reasonable to the constable. “Lovely thoughts, Father,” he says when they part company, manifesting the enormous gap between words and actualities that’s a central theme of the film.

“Aferim” means “well done” or “bravo” in Romanian and related languages, and although characters call it out from time to time, its connection with the film has less to do with literal meaning than with the sense of helter-skelter energy that surges through the story. It’s a little like the title of Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, provoking thought about what “right” or “well done” might mean to different people in different circumstances. Of course the priest’s diatribe is outrageous, and of course Jude is simply giving him enough rope to hang himself, but then again, the cleric with the “lovely thoughts” is far from the most disagreeable person in the tale.

Mihai Comānoiu (Ionitā) and Alberto Dinache (Tintiric).

And quite a tale it is. The constable, Costandin (Teodor Corban), and his youthful sidekick, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), are charging around the countryside in search of a Roma slave named Carfin (Toma Cuzin), who has taken it on the lam after allegedly robbing his owner. The latter is Iordache (Alexandru Dabija), a petty aristocrat whose relative wealth gives him near-absolute authority at a time when this region (part of the Ottoman Empire but under Russian rule) had only rough riders like Costandin to enforce the precepts, teachings, and traditions that substitute for a thoroughgoing legal system.

Making progress by means of threats, lies, bribes, intimidation, and other police tactics handed down through the ages, Costadin eventually finds Carfin hiding with a runaway boy named Tintiric (Alberto Dinache) in the dilapidated home of a dirt-poor peasant. After disposing of Tintiric at a slave market, the others commence the long journey back to Iordache’s domain, with Carfin slung over Costadin’s horse like a sack of potatoes.

Far from behaving like a sack, however, Carfin proves to be terrific company—telling stories about European capitals he’s visited, joining in the games when they sojourn at an inn, even dispelling the evil eye when Ionita gets a headache. Ionita bonds with Carfin so closely that he wants to set the captive free, but Costadin is a man of honor, and anyway there’s a fee involved. “Want us to be everyone’s laughingstock,” he rhetorically asks, “and not get a single dime?” But he does promise to mollify Iordache’s anger at Carfin, saving the slave from too severe a punishment.

Cuzin Toma (Carfin, on ground), Alexandru Dabija (Boyar Iordache Cîndescu, center with knife), Mihai Comānoiu (Ionitā) and Teodor Corban (Costandin).

Good luck with that. It turns out stealing was only one of Carfin’s misdeeds. Another was sleeping with Iordache’s willing wife, Smaranda (Luminita Gheorghiu), who pines for companionship in the closet-sized room she shares with a servant, a cat, and an endless supply of complaints, most of them no doubt justified. Smaranda has suffered many beatings since her seduction of Carfin came to light, and while Costadin sympathizes with her, he points out that Iordache has been within his rights, since men are expected to beat their wives. On the bright side, the constable adds, the law allows for a degree of leniency, since women are “dimmer of wit and weaker before sin” than men. Iordache acted in that spirit of mercy by using only his fists, Costadin concludes, so Smaranda has nothing to gripe about.

The constable now approaches Iordache to request leniency toward Carfin, getting absolutely nowhere. The climax of the narrative is the boyar’s appalling revenge on the wayward slave, and one now sees that the entire film—including its generous doses of irony and humor—has been a tightly orchestrated crescendo of sociocultural evils, every one of which, from the seemingly risible to the unambiguously grave, has pointed to rot festering just below the surface and now unveiled in all its malicious horror. Ionita is visibly shaken by Carfin’s atrocious fate, but Costadin advises him to keep things in perspective (“He ain’t your fuckin’ brother”) and take the long view. “This world will stay as it is,” he tells his son as they set out for home, “you can’t change it, try as you might. We live as we can, not as we want.”

Although that’s obviously a recipe for stagnation, not for action toward a better tomorrow, I don’t see Aferim! as a cheerless or pessimistic film. The clearest evidence for its underlying hopefulness is the vigor and resilience of the major characters, their capacity for living in the moment, their ability to stay on course despite constant hardship and adversity. Jude communicates these qualities through the wry shadings of the screenplay, the robust performances of the uniformly excellent cast, and carefully placed details of dialogue, décor, and costume; there’s a sort of subplot in the headgear, for instance—the loftier the character, the higher and more preposterous a hat he gets to wear.

Cuzin Toma (Carfin), Mihai Comānoiu (Ionitā) and Teodor Corban (Costandin).

The most frequent cinematic gesture in Aferim! is a shot that begins with people advancing from the distance and moving past the camera, which slowly pivots to show them receding into the distance. The movie ends with such a shot, smoothly panning while Costadin lifts Ionita’s spirits by predicting a bright future for him as they start on their homeward journey. Just this once, however, a flare of refracted sunlight floods the image as the characters pass, momentarily raising the film’s abrasive realism to a level of aesthetic and even spiritual luster that has hardly been hinted at before. Misery and corruption are certainly entrenched in the movie’s world, but suddenly you realize that truth and beauty are there as well—how else could the characters endure the toil, instability, and privation that steadily shadow their lives?

Crammed though it is with grime, confusion, and hollering, Aferim! is as precisely crafted as any film in recent memory, starting with Jude’s decision to shoot it on 35mm in widescreen black and white, a format that solidly supports its stylistic blend of overt granularity and stealthy poeticism. The main extra in the new release from Big World Pictures is Jude’s admirable 2006 short The Tube with a Hat, about a father and son hauling a bulky TV set to a distant repair shop, trudging over present-day terrain in an arduous journey that could almost be a dry run for some scenes in Aferim! (Jude’s other 2006 short, Alexandra, also hints at this.) The other extra is just a trailer for the feature, but it’s ingenious and hilarious enough to deserve special mention. Jude is a filmmaker of many talents, and Aferim! confirms his reputation as a screen artist with exceptional prospects even by the lofty standards of contemporary Romanian cinema.

David Sterritt served two terms as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle and chaired the National Society of Film Critics from 2005 to 2015.

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