Seemingly a stylistic 180 from his last film (the tremendous domestic black comedy “Everyone In Our Family“), director Radu Jude‘s “Aferim!” has been categorized by most as a “Romanian Western.” And if this summons a certain Sergio Leone vibe, then it’s borne out by the opening titles, set in a distinctly cowboyish font against a shot of a cactus framed against a bright sky while a traditional folk song wails out. But while we’re told this is 1835 Wallachia, the film’s brilliantly well-imagined world, photographed in tactile black and white, seems to belong to an earlier era — a time of feudal lords, troubadours, hags and wenches. Then again, perhaps the “man’s gotta do” ethos of the American West (as imagined in cinema) is itself an evolution of the tales of knights and quests and honor such as might have been immortalized in jaunty Medieval folk songs and passed on in crowded taverns. These were just a few of the thoughts I didn’t have while watching “Aferim!” — I was too busy laughing.
Jude creates an indecently enjoyable smokescreen of ribald back-and-forth around the central slim story of Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), who are hired by a local Boyar (Alexandru Dabija) to track down the gypsy Carfin (Cuzim Toma), whom the Boyar believes dishonored him by seducing his wife. Via several bracing encounters in which Costandin reveals his level of contempt for women, children, Gypsies, peasants, Jews, Turks, Italians, Englishmen, Russians, and old people — essentially everyone lower down on the social scale than he — he finds Carfin, hiding out with a runaway boy, Tintiric (Alberto Dinache). The four of them — father, son, and the two captives — bicker and exchange stories on the road, kind of bonding despite two of them being in bondage, and we get an impression of Costandin’s fundamental kindness beneath all the vulgar racist, sexist, self-aggrandizing bluster. At which point Costandin sells Tintiric at the first slave market they come to.
Because delicious and wicked as the dialogue is — the insults and epithets are Shakespeare with a hard-R rating — the fire that fuels the film’s engine is a lot more serious. Jude uses the Quixote-like figure of Constandin, who even with his bigotry, foul mouth, maudlin self-pity, and puffed-up self-importance, has a streak of decency in him, to worry away at issues like misogyny and the anti-Roma sentiment that still dog Romanian society today. Ultimately, Jude and co-writer Florin Lazarescu‘s subtle point is that societal racism may have its roots in the past, but that does not excuse it. Even these flawed men, mired in mores of the time, on some level know it to be morally wrong. Costandin comes to stand for the whole “just following orders” mentality and eventually embodies the brokenness of the mid-level functionary who realizes that by doing his “duty” he has lost a little more of his soul.
In the moment, though, you can simply immerse yourself in the sights, smells, sounds and language of this undoubtedly allegorical, yet consummately real-feeling, lived-in world. This quality, doubtless the reason that Jude picked up a Best Director award in Berlin, is what really elevates the film. Long stretches of Costandin and Ionita crossing lonely scrubby landscapes with Carfin, his legs in stocks, draped uncomfortably, belly-down across the nape of Costandin’s horse, the richness of the exchanges, peppered with daft yet apropos anecdotes, jokes, threats and proverbs, (“You cannot feed the wolf and save your lambs,” “I will whip-fuck you!”) colors in a whole society outside those lines.
And then there are the bigger scenes, which are among the best-staged and most convincing period recreations in a festival lousy with period films. The market they visit, that has a funfair complete with miniature wooden Ferris Wheel and Punch-and-Judy show, is a rowdy squawking affair that allows DP Marius Panduru to cram every inch of the frame with little dramas and details. And a night of revelry and whoring in a tavern provides not only one of the liveliest interludes, but carries through to the next day when, in a wonderfully deadpan shot that is indicative of Jude’s bawdy, characterful, side-gag-heavy approach, the captured but comradely Carfin tries to work his Gypsy magic to dispel Ionita’s hangover. As Carfin yawns through his incantation, Costadin saddles up the horses wearily in the middle ground while far off a man staggers to and fro, hurling repeatedly.
The current of informed anger, directed at those who stand by while injustice and bigotry flourish, is unmistakable and turns the whole film into a kind of clever folk fable-cum-protest song. But really, what makes “Aferim!” (which means “Bravo!” incidentally) such a unique cinephile experience is that you get to say, truthfully, that you’ve seen a black and white, period Romanian art-house movie that intelligently dissects and contextualizes the historical roots of racism, and no one need ever know you’ve just had a blast. [A-/B+]