Director: Radu Jude
Stars: Todor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu
4 (out of 5) Globes
History is written by the victors, but in the Romanian drama/pitch black comedy “Aferim!,” we get to see what it was like for those winners — albeit ones who would eventually come to be seen as losers — after all their damage was done. Historical pieces are a rarity among Romanian New Wave films, which often tend to the nation’s copious modern problems, and "Aferim!" digs up a dark and never much shown period in local history.
It’s 1835 in Wallachia, a region of Romania then part of the Ottoman Empire, when the Romani people were bought and sold as slaves. Our “heroes” are a constable, Costandin (Todor Corban), and his teen son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), who hit the road in search of a Romani gypsy, Carfin (Toma Cuzin), who allegedly slept with his master’s wife and took to the hills. Constandin and Ionita follow the law and think they’re doing right, though sometimes they turn reflective. “In a few hundred years,” Constandin remarks to Ionita, “do you think folks will say a good word about us?”
They won’t, but “Aferim!” isn’t so much judgmental as interested in exploring how people are defined and deluded by their oft-horrible times. And it’s interested in showing how a bygone era worked, in the most honest and sometimes darkly funny fashion imaginable. Both a stark, widescreen black-and-white Western and a deadpan Romanian dramedy in the manner of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and the recently released “The Treasure,” it stares via long takes as characters rattle off racial epithets, some of them ridiculous. (There’s something or other about “giant Jews.”) They obliviously betray their awfulness, sometimes while trying to sound decent. “Man is asked to beat his wife with kindness,” someone offers, while a man of power informs one of his properties, “I treated you well, like all my slaves.”
Cormac McCarthy is an obvious influence, with its expansive trek and the hopelessness of a time when human life was beyond cheap. But director Radu Jude — whose explosive (and similiarly funny) “Everybody in the Family” is well worth searching for — has a more mordant touch. A jaunty opening theme plays out over shots of its bleak landscapes, the whites of the images blown out. A giant, packed slave market just happens to have an old-timey ferris wheel right in the middle of it. There are even moments of kindness, albeit ones spliced with horror. Carfin is caught about halfway through, and though he’s destined for an unpleasant end, our protagonists can’t help but bond with their captor, as though this were a scarier version of “The Last Detail.” Constandin asks him if he has any children. “Maybe next year, if my wife doesn’t die,” Carfin responds.
What Jude is doing with “Aferim!” isn’t that different from what Steven Soderbergh did (or will keeping doing, in future seasons that may or may not happen) with “The Knick.” Neither this film nor that show merely flatter the audience, patting them on the back for how much we’ve all progressed since the dingy, inhumane past. They invites us to view history as a funhouse mirror, with prejudices never dying but evolving into other, sometimes more subtle forms. Constandin and Ionita are simply doing their jobs as the law currently stands, and have simply lucked into being born into a caste not presently being oppressed. One thing’s for sure: If movies (or people) are still a thing 180-some years from now, life in 2016, to viewers of the deep future, is going to looked almost as messed up.