Romanian director Radu Jude’s 2012 feature “Everybody In Our Family” was a brilliant dark comedy about domestic abuse. Its plot involved an initially sympathetic protagonist transformed into a monstrous figure who takes his next of kin hostage, making it increasing difficult to sympathize with his plight. Jude’s follow-up, the unique black-and-white period drama “Aferim!”, takes the opposite approach: Following a boorish Romanian lawman and his obedient son in the late 19th century as they track down an escaped Gypsy slave, the movie foregrounds the ugly sentiments of the feudal era that define its quest-driven characters while steadily humanizing them.
Not unlike the recent 1600’s-set Sundance Film Festival hit “The Witch,” Jude draws on historical documents for much of the dialogue at the center of the movie. In this case, the chatter becomes a conduit for getting lost in this expansive, empty world, as much of the story unfolds with the two men riding horseback through yawning valleys and talking through their mission. The portly, bearded Costandin (Teodor Corban) guides his teenage son (Alberto Dinache) through the land with an air of paternal guidance that borders on the ridiculous. The resulting journey is both an unsettling and bittersweet father-son bonding story.
It’s also, in a disarmingly charming fashion, kind of a road movie. Stopping off in small villages and interrogating peasants dotted along the trail, Costandin demands intel on the whereabouts of the slave, while babbling to his son in amusingly coarse language about the nature of their mission. Jude’s script finds morbidly funny parallels between Costandin’s militant language as he seeks intel (“Tell me, or I’ll whip all you slaves to death!”) and the casual tenor of his vulgar conversations with his clueless son (“You’re not a Soddomite are you?” “What’s that?”). The authenticity of their setting, captured in elegant chiaroscuro by cinematographer Marius Panduru, lends an authenticity to their proceedings even as their banter might not seem out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Indeed, the informal chatter that defines Costandin and his son early on bears some echoes of the Jules-Vincent hitman banter at the start of “Pulp Fiction.” Official descriptions suggest Costandin’s personality lies somewhere between Stalin and Don Quixote, but with his mixture of bravado and ignorance, wouldn’t seem altogether out of place in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Ultimately, though, “Aferim!” amounts to a serious endeavor designed to explore many facets of its era through the lens of people trapped in it. Their crude dialogue, real as it may be, hints at comedic possibilities while offering a shrewd look at people defined by their circumstances.
As the screenplay cycles through goofy asides, philosophical introspection and various cultural attitudes, it positions Costandin’s racist mentality within the confines of the time and lets it dangle there like a question mark: Are they victims of the era’s standards or do they know better? The latter possibility thickens with intrigue once the two men catch up to their target, an equally garrulous slave (Cuzim Toma) who repeatedly claims his innocence while tied to Costandin’s horse as the trio gradually bond over the course of their travels.
It turns out that the fugitive man was seduced by his owner’s wife, giving him more than one reason to flee. But he also gets ample time to explain the general hardships of the slave life. “We sweat like beasts for a piece of bread,” he says, and with time, his words start to sink in.
Eventually, the chemistry between the three men takes “Aferim!” into “The Last Detail Territory,” as it’s another engaging romp about two lawmen growing sympathetic toward their prisoner even as they continue to march him toward his fate. There’s a touching sadness to the moment where Costandin’s son asks him if they can free the slave and Constandin, against his better judgement, argues against it. “You can’t feed the wolf and save your lambs,” he says.
The movie’s greatest set piece unfolds during a nighttime bar, where Costandin invites the slave to drink with them as they engage with prostitutes and share folk songs. Costandin offers a shocking backstory to his son with darkly amusing matter-of-factness. “I had a cunt in every county,” he says. “Don’t tell your mother.”
In these scenes and others, Jude maintains a sense of remove from his characters that makes it difficult to fully invest in their experiences. The story rarely stops for a quiet moment of reflection; the monotonous nature of the walk-and-talk approach means that a lot of scenes end right when they’ve grown interesting. At the same time, however, this technique creates a sense of rich immersion into the detailed setting. Jude’s emphasis on wide-angle shots and rich, storybook imagery provides a refreshing change from the usual jittery realism associated with contemporary Romanian cinema.
With its intentionally meandering portrait of comically inept officials, “Aferim!” has a kind of spiritual kinship with Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H,” and shares its ironic perspective on the grim context of the events at hand. Jude’s title is an exclamation that roughly translates as “Bravo!”, and it’s heard used by various figures throughout the movie as they go about their agendas. Yet no cheery interjection can fully mask the bleak inevitabilities at every turn.
“Aferim!” premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.