Along sun-dappled forest roads Turks zoom by in city-bound carriages. In muddy villages Hungarians swap stories, jokes, and curses while Russians gossip of the latest French fashions. In a bustling tavern a lone confused Englishman, complete with manicured mustache and top hat, stumbles in between circles of gamblers and drunkards. A kaleidoscope of cultures, this Wallachia. Along this crossroads of Eastern Europe, two figures on horseback wind their way through desolate countrysides and murky swamps: Costandin the policeman (Teodor Corban) and his son Ionitā (Mihai Comānoiu). Together they seek the Romani Carfin (Cuzin Toma), a runaway slave who cuckolded his cruel master Boyar Iordache Cîndescu (Alexandru Dabija). To return Carfin is to ensure his death; to return empty-handed will ensure their own torture. Radu Jude’s Aferim! isn’t interested in the complexities and nuances of morality. His is a film of people—some are good, some are bad, most are both, and all must do what they must in order to earn their daily bread.
Aferim! is a film of endless diversions and bizarre encounters. In one scene Costandin and Ionitā trade riddles with slave-owners, the next they debate the supposed personhood of “inferior races” (i.e. Romani and Jews) with an itinerant priest. In 1835, the time of the film, the Romani—widely referred to in modern society by the racial slur “Gypsies”—were legally traded as slaves in Wallachia. And while Jude makes the wise decision to eschew cringe-worthy moralizing, the film makes no secret of the horrific conditions faced by Romani slaves: bought and sold like cattle, they face torture and death at the hands of sociopathic masters. Neither are Costandin and Ionitā treated as heroes or saints: vocally homophobic, antisemitic, and superstitious, they bully and threaten helpless peasants and even sell a captured Romani child at market. Jude has no interest in showing how his protagonists should have been, merely how they would have been. In doing so the film transforms into a vital document of historical recreation.
Borrowing heavily from American Westerns, most obviously John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Costandin and Ionitā’s journey transports them through the heartbreakingly beautiful, barren, and desolate Romanian countryside. But cinematographer Marius Panduru’s visual schemata draws more heavily from the films of Sergio Leone and his Italian compatriots than the great American cinematic myth-makers: wide-open, empty landscapes equal parts sky and earth; frame compositions more painterly than cinematic; and peoples and places covered in grime, gunk, and dirt. But for once I feel that the choice of black-and-white cinematography may have been mistaken since the utilization of color would have helped drive home the alienness of the countless featured ethnicities and cultures.
Aferim! has been announced as Romania’s official submission for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Look for it when it gets released in America on Jan. 22, 2016.