Aferim is a Turkish word meaning bravo, often used both in casual earnestness and slanted sarcasm throughout this film by Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude, who was co-winner of the Best Director prize at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival. This ironic quality of derisive approval defines Jude’s film, as Aferim! is at once a work laced with a droll and foul-mouthed humour that constantly provokes laughter, and an increasingly bleak, ultimately disturbing portrait of humanity’s endless capacity for discrimination, hypocrisy, and self-negation. Jude encapsulates this contradictory worldview in formal terms. The visuals, filmed in lustrous black and white, wield a sense of beauty that’s often intoxicating, replete with shimmering chiaroscuro, creating a world at once lucid and immediate but also vividly antiquated, whilst the soundtrack records with a cocked and mordant ear the utter absurdity, crudity, and pathos of the species, tethering together the sublime and the ridiculous with a nagging, loping rhythm.
Jude’s camera observes, usually from a distance but with insistent concentration, an exceptionally simple drama: in backwoods Wallachia in 1835, Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable who really makes his living as a glorified bounty hunter, and his teenage son and subordinate Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), are combing the landscape in search of Gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin), who’s run off from his master, Boyar Candescu (Alexandru Dabija), and accused of stealing money. The background for Costandin and Ionita’s adventure is the parlous state of Romania in the age, beset by excruciating injustices everyone takes for eternal realities and proofs of natural hierarchy. Many Gypsies are enslaved and mistreated, whilst even those who are still free populace are subjected to abuse and starvation, and often forced to sell themselves to find something resembling safe harbour. The country itself is hardly in a better state, still nominally under Ottoman control but also recovering from recent war and occupation by Russia, and the Industrial Revolution hasn’t visited this land yet, which might as well still be in the Middle Ages. Roadside conversations can take place in an assortment of languages befitting a tidal zone of cultural influence. The rambling narrative, which barely even counts as picaresque, nonetheless amasses into a panoramic portrait of the time and place that’s so convincing you can almost smell it.
The seething chaos hidden by the bucolic landscape is occasionally glimpsed, as when Costandin and Ionita come across a smashed carriage and littered, stripped corpses, amidst rumours of ghostly hordes of bandits and runaway Gypsies making their living as gold fossickers in the forests. Anyone with any sense runs from representatives of power, and of course anyone who runs instantly becomes the target of that power. Costandin, who’s feeling his age and beset by a niggling limp, leads his son through several rites of passage during the course of their journey, including paying for a prostitute to lose his cherry and trying to explain to him the lot of a man as one who must accept the grimmer tasks of life as readily as the pleasant, hoping he’ll join the new national army and find his path to rank and prosperity there. Along the way, Costandin bullies and browbeats the free Gypsies he encounters and negotiates bribery of an opposite in a neighbouring county to further their search, all the while proclaiming his own goodness and status as an exemplar of his breed. Eventually father and son trace Carfin to the property of a farming couple who regularly take in runaway slaves, and they cart Carfin away, laid over the back of Costandin’s horse with stocks on his legs, along with another runaway, the small boy Tintiric (Alberto Dinache). On the way home, Carfin recounts the real reason his old owner wants him returned: the Boyar’s wife (Luminita Gheorghiu) made him her lover, and Carfin fled when the Boyar found out and threatened to kill him. Costandin keeps assuring him and Ionita that he’ll make sure the Boyar doesn’t do anything worse than give him an appropriate beating.
Most studies in historical injustice and cruelly binding identity in English-language cinema come drenched in righteous hindsight and studied worthiness. Aferim! instead portrays the epoch and its human flotsam with a brand of very Eastern European deadpan comedy that makes you laugh until suddenly it doesn’t. Jude stares coolly at both the farcicality of a world governed by ways of behaving that seem at once crudely authentic but also deeply irrational and arbitrary, whilst also capturing the fleeting moments of connection and meaning that tie people together. Like fellow Romanian Cristian Mungiu, Jude is compelled to examine an undertone of reflexive atavism apparent in his culture as an historical root of contemporary ills, and reveals himself here as the slyer wit of the two directors. The actual story has a more than a little affinity with Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1974), whilst Jude’s pictures, delivered via Marius Panduru’s photography, deliberately evoke the sweep of classic westerns. The dissent to that form’s noble grandeur is one of tone, recreating the period with a sense of sociological fascination and precision. Some shots evoke the intricate lighting effects and gritty beauty of great etching and mezzotint work by the likes of Durer or Dore, but the romanticising effect of such art is constantly cancelled out by noting the shambling earthiness of the behaviour enacted, moving closer to another etching artist, Hogarth.
Jude depicts a society rooted in power systems enforced with fierce and unswerving abound with corruption and frailty, but also constantly notes how closely related the appalling and the amusing sometimes are. One concern of the film is the rude, eccentric pride Costandin and others have in keeping hold of their identity in the midst of such travails and clashing perspectives, and the oddball humour that wells from watching humans enacting their follies. An English tourist is chased off and heckled when trying to protest some manifestation of unfairness. Costandin and Ionita’s encounter with a priest driving a cart (Alexandru Bindea) becomes an epic recounting of every bigoted idea under the sun, including a theory that modern Jews are the descendants of primordial monsters created and abandoned by God, recounted with the force of absolute truth, whilst Costandin notes in awe what a privilege it is to listen to the educated. Folk wisdom, much of it definably unwise, falls in a constant stream from characters’ lips, from the priest’s litany of supposed national traits to Carfin warding the evil eye away from Ionita with a quick ministration, to the explanation a traveller gives of a peculiar saying from his own town (“Spit on us and let us go!”). Costandin happily recalls the glory days of his public service, not with the pride of someone who managed any feat of justice but as times replete with violence and rapine, storming villages and killing cattle. “We’re not interested in your life,” Costandin tells Carfin as the Gypsy recounts his lot, “We’re hard-working.” Carfin, asked if he has any children, replies, “Maybe next year, if my wife doesn’t die.”
Amidst the blather and bluff is a starker, more intimate drama of an uneducated yet worldly father trying to shepherd into adulthood his son, in part by teaching him to be calm in the face of his own lack of importance. “We’re nothing Ionita,” Costandin murmurs as they sit before a campfire, “We’re like a spark from these embers.” One of Jude’s points of inquiry here is interesting, moving beyond his cutting portrait of parochialism to contemplate the disparity between the things we know on a cultural level – the way language, community, and common belief patterns impact our way of seeing the world – and those we learn on a personal level, some of which can reinforce the other but also entirely contradict them. Costandin offers both his son and Carfin assurances that only cover up his ultimate helplessness in the face of the system he both participates in and helps perpetuate, but also only ever seeing himself as a tool, a working stiff seeing an ugly job through to the end because it’s what he does. Ionita’s initial air of pendulous simplicity blooms into something like mature alertness and beaming openness after a literal roll in the hay with a whore, but the question about their Gypsy charges’ fates becomes a quietly pressing question. Because they weren’t actually looking for him, father and son arrange Tintiric’s auction to a monastery instead of returning him to his abusive master, a nominally humane act, but of course they’ve simply offered him up to another of life’s crapshoots and profited by it to boot. And Castandin remains adamant about fulfilling their appointed task to the Boyar, if only because it’s a matter of professional pride.
Jude conjures two apparently formless yet actually brilliantly choreographed set-pieces in the film’s second half, the first taking place in a village tavern were Castandin gets son and self laid and enjoys the rowdy, drunken good times complete with sing-alongs and party games, and the climax when the two constables finally get their charge back to the Boyar. These scenes are Jude’s coup, depicting a way of life and people living it with casual precision for the ebb and flow of joy, anger, frustration, fellowship, drunken fun, foolishness, and finally real horror. When the Boyar, a slightly sad-sack cuckold, and his depressed, battered wife are finally depicted, Jude’s deploys expert character comedy that also serves to quietly provoke tension, before moving in with jarring force to the film’s vicious, sobering punch-line, confronting young Ionita with the last and most specific lesson he must learn in coming of age. “We live as we can, not as we want,” Castandin tells his son in the last scene even as he dares to imagine a coming time when his family, at least, might be able to take it easy. Is he telling the harsh truth, or excusing his own part in the world’s wickedness? Has human nature changed so much in two centuries, or just what some of us used to get away with, and does it all depend on how long things are moving smoothly for us where we'll fall if put to the test? Aferim! is damn good either way.