In Romania, slavery persisted for 500 years, until the institution was outlawed in 1856. In 1923, a now-lost silent film called “Gypsy Girl in the Bedroom” dealt with the subject of slavery. Since then, not a single film about slavery has been made in Romania. The Romanian New Wave has produced a number of films on historical topics, most having to do with the legacy of the totalitarian Ceaușescu dictatorship and the fall-out from its collapse, but few Romanian filmmakers have looked back further in the nation’s history, to a time well before Communism.
Set in 1835, director Radu Jude’s “Aferim!” is a blunt corrective to that cinematic legacy of silence, a darkly funny and deeply incensed tale of a bounty hunter, Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban), and his son (Mihai Comanoiu) trekking through the forests of Wallachia in pursuit of a runaway slave. The slave has run away after his master, a boyar, caught him in bed with his wife. (The boyars, the highest level of the aristocracy, were one of three primary slave-owning classes in Romania, along with the crown and Orthodox monasteries.) About halfway through the film, Costandin catches the runaway, Carfin (Cuzin Toma), as well as a child named Tintiric (Alberto Dinache). As Costandin and his son transport Carfin and Tintiric back to the boyar, Carfin desperately tries to convince them that he was not at fault, that the boyar’s wife seduced him. Costandin, a moderately empathetic but dangerously self-rationalizing sort, assures Carfin that the boyar will merely whip him. But when they return Carfin to the boyar, the punishment is far more gruesome.
Carfin, like the vast majority of Romanian slaves, is Roma (or Gypsy, as they are commonly known). Roma, referred to by the epithet “crows” throughout the film, are the subject of outrageous racism in “Aferim!” At one point, a particularly racist priest—he goes on a lengthy ethnicist tirade that encompasses the French, Italians, Russians, Jews (who are supposedly descendants of Giant Jews who existed in the time of Adam), and many more—questions whether Roma are even human. Jude weaves this thread of intolerance and racism throughout the film.
Jude structures “Aferim!” as a series of encounters, each of which highlights the pervasive racism of the era. Much of the dialogue is extracted from contemporary accounts, lending a verisimilitude to the film’s evocation of the 1830s. Shot in glistening, ‘scope-framed black-and-white, “Aferim!” has the feel of an Ostern (the Soviet answer to the American western). Shots of Costandin and his son riding their horses through the wilderness dominate the film, and Jude uses his widescreen frame nicely, emphasizing movement across the landscape (in scenes of travel) and crowding the screen with faces (in group scenes).
But, after a while, Jude’s style becomes wearisome. The shots become repetitive, the characters never stop talking, and everything is pitched at the level of a breathless rant. To some extent, this constant stream of words seems intended to suggest the blithe indifference to Roma suffering that characterized the era and still resonates today. Jude clearly wants these streams of intolerant bile to strike a chord with contemporary Romanian audiences, but the unmodulated tone starts to drown out any specifics. Each new scene starts to become merely additional evidence of a point Jude has already proven. Jude is to be commended for confronting his nation’s cruel history forthrightly and without illusions, but in trying to say so much, “Aferim!” ultimately says less than it intends to.