Aferim! [2015] – A Riotously Funny Journey into the Roots of Racial Inequality

                                          There is a certain kind of authenticity and outspoken nature to the Romanian new generation movies. Their new wave film-makers (Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, Radu Muntean, Calin Peter Netzer, Corneliu Porumboiu) lack the egotistic or judgmental characteristics that plague many film-makers around the world, who want to tell truth or take a hit at prevailing hypocrisy. Films either tend to twist our worsening social reality or shine a light on it. Radu Jude and his fellow Romanian film-makers take projects that belong to later category; one where films become a social necessity rather than to create a despicable allure. “Aferim!” (2015) is Radu Jude’s third feature film (I haven’t seen his first two films), which critics see it as Jude’s tonal & thematic departure. “Aferim” flawlessly contextualizes the historical roots of European racism on socially disadvantaged ethnic groups, whose descendants we now see migrating in masses to different Western European countries. The film’s pivotal design is a hardscrabble journey, but unlike the one witnessed in McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”, Jude’s nuanced commentary gives us one darkly jovial history lesson (and, of course the film is starkly cruel at right times).

                                       “Aferim” is set in the 1830’s Wallachia, a period when the Roma (not to be confused with Romanians) ethnic minorities lived in slavery (in places now collectively called as “Romania”). The Roma people were back then called with slang terms like “Crow” or “Gypsy”. The continuing levels of discrimination against Roma people are considered to be serious concern (as per EU report) and the contemporary inequality is said to have made the Roma’s to migrate in masses. So, director Jude and writer Florin Lazarescu handling the subject of social repression of Roma slaves, is naturally diffused with allegorical tones (which is only expressed in subtle tones). However, this isn’t a film that solely provides a scathing critique on just the Romanian social order. Jude also astoundingly dissects the other forms of subjugation or exploitation, like the anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homo-phobic and brutally patriarchal rants, which is almost encountered in every other society around the world, past or present.

                                          The opening titles and the opening shot of a cactus framed against a dry land, brightly lit sky gives an emotional atmosphere that is akin to ‘Western’ genre films. The attractive black and white aesthetics, deliberately distant frames do convey that the film could be a revisionist medieval period drama. The sight of an old man atop a horse in this particular landscape screams “Don Quixote!”. “Aferim” is an evolution from all these immortalized tales since the central quest here is drenched in immorality, unlike the journeys made by principled bounty hunters or esteemed knights.  Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) is our guide to this morally parched land. He is an aging old, accompanied by his inexperienced son & protege Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). Costandin is the kind of silver-tongued protagonist we come across in Western films. He boasts a wellspring of rural wisdom that is both vilely racist and darkly humorous.

                                       The father and son’s mission is simple: to hunt down the gypsy Carfin Pandolean (Toma Cuzin), who is said to have stolen from his Boyar (master or lord). The duos journey puts them through various bracing encounters in which Costandin or the opposite parties exhibit their hatred for everything, from women, gypsies, Jews, Englishmen, Russians, etc. “The butcher doesn’t fear thousands of sheep” he explains to his son on how to treat the gypsies. Thanks to a betrayal, Carfin is soon caught, but the reason for his alleged crime seems to be different than the one stated by Boyar. Throughout the return journey, Carfin has an effect on his captors’ conscience, but this isn’t a tale of reckoning, because in Costandin’s world, moral corruption and ignorance veils the human emotions as much as the thick fog that obscure the land.

Spoilers Ahead

                                         The script by Radu Jude and Florin Lazarescu is supposed to have drawn a lot of dialogues from historical documents and folklore literature of those times (19th century). For examples, at the fair, a Roma family begs: “Buy us! Save us from hunger!” and then there’s a reference of how gypsies are traded as dowries. Florin and Jude had perfectly found places to stuff the folk-wit. There are some excellent sayings that seem appropriate to come out of Costandin’s mouth (“Fear is shameful but healthy. It is God’s gift). Some of Costandin’s linguistic verve is also highly offensive and morally reprehensible. “Tight of cunt and hard of butt, makes the cock crack like a nut”; “The country’s torn apart with prongs and the cunt sings merry songs”; “In the ass of the humble, devil-sits cross-legged”; “Woman shall be less castigated than men, as they are dimmer of wit and weaker before sin”, and such misogynistic, lewd remarks keeps on pouring, which at one point makes you think that the dialogues are not just a way to look at the racist mentality of the period, but also becomes a fitting introspection into primary character itself. Costandin’s boorish jokes, bigotry and drunken merriment sort of become a defense mechanism to prevent the heavily weighing thoughts about moral putrefaction. Costandin’s brand of archaic humor only shows us that there is a sense of moral decency within him which only wants to hide behind those remarks. If we get to the core of whats haunting Costandin, then we could express a twisted affability to his character nature. Florin or Jude doesn’t excuse Costandin’s behavior, but they are providing us a window to study the flawed nature of this individual.

                                           The protagonist’s self-importance, self-pity and a rare streak of decency could easily be drawn parallels in our contemporary society, where men caught in the mid-level bureaucracy or in societal hierarchy tend to take a morally wrong stand, simply citing that ‘it is not their place to question’. Nevertheless, the script isn’t a scathing attack on those mid-level, ‘following orders’ people; it surprisingly a subjective approach and displays how their souls are lost by doing the assigned duties. In the end, when Costandin talks to his shocked son about how “the world will stay as it is, you can’t change it try as you might”, it seems Costandin is talking to his stalking conscience. “Aferim” raises some vital questions about personal responsibility and the moral judgment of future societies. Priest bargain over the price of a child slave, a priest’s racist rant based on Hamitic myth are all brief, hilarious sequences that easily digs into the corrupted society, and when the full force of all these vile remarks are seen in action (in the end), its hard not to flinch. Costandin, at one point asks to his son, “a hundred years from now, will folks say a good word about us?” Both the priests’ rants and Costandin’s question are inextricably tied to central queries involving individual responsibility and moral judgment.

                                          There are obvious allegorical notes behind the scenarios designed. But, director Radu Jude allows us to fully immerse into the atmosphere on-screen (Jude won ‘Best Director Award’ in Berlin Film Festival). On a plain visceral level, viewers are able to take in the simple narrative trajectories or the resplendent images, without the need to possess knowledge about contemporary Romanian society. The paths, where Costandin and Ionita journey through are tangible and there are some excellently staged recreations the period, particularly the festival fair setting. DoP Marius Panduru and director Jude fill their frames with little details and subtle dramas. The proclivities of drunken revelry in the tavern brims with details and in the morning, when Carfin uses some gypsy healing method to dispel Ionita’s hangover, the frame is littered with prone bodies and vomiting men, while Costandin exclaims “O treacherous world, first sweet, then bitter!” Director Radu never feeds us any emotional cues by keeping the camera at a great distance. The rare occasions when the camera goes closer, Costandin himself is persecuted by ones higher than him. Radu’s distanced shots at many times slowly moves, waiting for their arrival & departure from the frames as if imbuing the feeling on us that they are mere passersby of the vast history (or as Costandin says “we’re like spark from these embers"). From these shots, we can understand that their emotional as well as societal progresses are too slow (not only theirs, in a way ours too). 

                                         “Aferim” (106 minutes) is a vigorous, timeless and comprehensive exploration of regressive ideals that keeps us and our society in an impassive state. As a cinephile, all I could say in the end is: “Bravo! Radu Jude”


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