Aferim! Dir. Radu Jude

[Big World Pictures; 2015]

Styles: historical, drama, tragedy
Others: Child’s Pose, Hard to Be a God, The Death of Mister Lazarescu

Radu Jude’s latest film finds the Romanian director grappling with his compatriots’ shameful history of mistreating the Romani (Gypsy) people. Valued less than most farm animals for centuries and stereotyped as dirty and thieving, Romani slavery was legal (and encouraged) in Romania until 1864. So technically they beat the United States in terms of abolition (which, you know, is good for them). The Romani were so universally despised by the rest of the country for so long that even to this day discrimination in housing, employment, and education is par for the course, and Romani suffer disproportionately high rates of police brutality. It’s more than safe to say that Mr. Jude’s aim with Aferim! isn’t entirely historical, and taking this into account makes his measured tone and brutal pacing all the more effective. While technically a dark comedy, the genuine humor of the film mainly serves as a reminder of everyday people’s capacity for casual cruelty.

Constandin (Teodor Corban) and his teenaged son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) set out to find a runaway Romani slave, their journey turning into something like a mix of John Ford’s The Searchers and Alexei German’s Hard to Be a God. Long, exquisitely composed shots in black and white of the lawman and his son traveling across a mostly harsh and unforgiving landscape are broken up by whatever the opposite of the milk of human kindness is. The commonalities that bind Jude’s disparate characters together is a shared hatred for their Turkish overlords and an almost unthinking disdain for the Romani. Compounding their quest is Constandin’s desire to make sure his son loses his virginity while in transit, to one of the most depressing prostitutes ever filmed.

Aferim! doesn’t waste time moralizing about the obvious and odious evil of racism and slavery that permeates its every scene, and the matter of fact way in which it presents scenes of say, an old, jolly priest bluntly saying that it’s perfectly natural for Gypsies to be beaten and kept within the bonds of slavery does more to turn one’s stomach than an overwrought caricature of an evil old racist ever could. The filmmakers respect their audience’s intelligence enough to assume they’ll understand how messed up the situations they’re presenting to them are without having to hit them over the head. Of course, the danger in doing so is to come off almost apathetic about the banality of evil, but if you’re paying attention, the somewhat pessimistic approach of Jude and his crew works marvelously.

The film becomes almost imperceptibly stunning once Constandin and Ionita catch up with the runaway Romani slave. Carfin (Cuzin Toma) was essentially raped by his master’s wife, and flees since his punishment for dishonoring his lord in such a way will most assuredly be death. While everyone involved in bringing him back demonstrates a tacit understanding that it’s consummately terrible to put a man to death for something he was coerced into doing, not a single one of them displays the faintest notion that the order they find themselves in could change, and that such a change would even be desirable. The entire journey back to Carfin’s master’s house is tense, sad, and bitterly funny, leading to a culmination that’s as angering as it is absurd.

Where Jude’s film mesmerizes lies in the creator’s ability to strip his observational narrative of all sentiment. There is no attempt to cast the obvious evil of the villain as evil—he just shows us what he does, without any meaningful establishing shots or camera moves to indicate to us that this guy is really bad and that we shouldn’t like him. Jude displays an approach to morality that I’ve seen in several other great Romanian films (most notably Child’s Pose), namely, he refuses to editorialize his action or sentimentalize his characters. It’s an eerie thing, and altogether fulfilling. Personally, I’m saddened (but not at all surprised) that it didn’t make the cut of the Best Foreign Picture nominees at this year’s Academy Awards.

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