Maria Tanase explores this incisive drama set in 1830s Romania
“Aferim!” – a congratulatory Turkish phrase which can be translated as “Bravo!” is the title of director Radu Jude’s most recent film, a historical drama set in 1830s Wallachia, now Southern Romania. It encapsulates the film’s dark humour, courtesy of a subtle yet consistent tinge of irony in the way it makes use of how the word has been repurposed in Romanian – it’s meant to poke fun at failures born of naiveté, in the way that you’d say “good job!” to someone tripping when there’s nothing to trip on. In this context, the title mirrors both the characters’ individual failures, as well as those of a society that fails to provide whatever sense of self-realisation they strive for.
The film follows the story of policeman Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his son Ionita (Mihai Comănoiu), sent to recapture a runaway Roma slave, Carfin (Toma Cuzin), after he is accused of seducing his owner’s wife. It offers a historically accurate portrayal of the treatment of Roma slaves in the region only a few decades before slavery was finally abolished in 1865. The film attempts to trace back the origins of Roma discrimination, whose ripples are still felt today, as well as throw some light on current European discourse on discrimination, which tends to conveniently separate itself from its American counterpart, as shown by the small number of films exploring Roma enslavement.
In this sense, comparisons can be drawn between Aferim! and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, but with its linear, road-movie timeline, the former also borrows elements from Western-style movies. The way in which the characters are fleshed out is intimate enough that at one point we actually sympathise with Costandin’s lamentations about his own historical significance (he feels he “paved the way” for future generations, but that they won’t acknowledge his contribution). But our sympathy is set against violence in language and behaviour which serve to remind us of the reality of the story: the picture it paints is clear enough without losing any of its depth and nuance, and while the film occasionally feels too much like a documentary, the acting stands out enough in all parts to make up for it – Aferim! is a surprisingly emotional watch.
On their journey to find the runaway slave, there’s a particularly striking scene in which, while still looking for Carfin, the constable and his son run into a priest whose cart has broken down on the road. They dutifully offer their help, and their piety appears even more ridiculous when contrasted with the violent interrogations which they carried out earlier. The scene culminates with the clergyman spewing a string of anecdotes on the fate of different ethnicities, all grounded in what is ironically a half-Christian, half-pagan mythology, and serves to crystallise the viewers’ impressions of religious hypocrisy in earlier scenes. The Church itself was one of the main owners of slaves, and we see how they’re treated, so that our frustration builds and builds until it finds an outlet here – the priest becomes a scapegoat.
It’s worth noting that while a lot of historical research went into the project, Jude drew from popular beliefs in writing this particular scene that is so rich with irony without losing any historical relevance – it illuminates the role of the Church in maintaining a system beneficial to them, as well as its relationship to its followers who cannot find it in themselves to voice their disapproval.
Aferim! is a refreshing change of pace from other recent movies coming out of Eastern Europe, and is Romania’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards. Although the film is beautiful – shot in black and white, and full of luminous landscape shots – its less than hopeful ending means it isn’t the type of story to appeal to the jury, plus the costumes and language hide many details about the characters’ backgrounds – historical information is never fully disclosed. Yet we are invited to make our own interpretations as we are drawn into an exemplary piece of storytelling, which makes haunting comparisons with the present day.
Featured image credit: Official film poster