Unlike most of the contemporary Romanian films I’ve seen recently, Radu Jude’s “Aferim!” is shot almost entirely out of doors, in an untamed landscape of wide vistas that often dwarfs or obscures the actors. There are no cramped apartments, no glaring fluorescent lights, no car interiors, no traffic jams. The film, for which the director won the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2015, was screened as part of the Reinventing Realism—New Cinema from Romania festival, and it is at first a surprise to see a new Romanian drama in which the natural world plays such a large role.
But it is also a very talky film, full of monologues and interchange, and a central character—the brutally pragmatic constable Costandin—who is an endless fountain of folk sayings, lyrical asides, and sometimes Shakespearean flights of poetry. Much of the dialogue is heard more than it is seen, and as the film progresses, the sumptuous black-and-white imagery of the Romanian landscape begins to become mostly backdrop. This is a moral, linguistic and historical picture of a culture, not a struggle of man against harsh external or natural realities.
Jude’s story takes place in Wallachia in the 1830s, when this part of Romania was variously under Russian and Ottoman domination. The brutal outside hegemony has corrupted every part of society, which is irrepressibly violent, a violence which is always circulating and gravitating down the social ladder. The gypsies, subject to legal slavery, are on the receiving end of the worst of it. The plot follows the efforts of Costandin and his son Ionitsa to recapture an escaped slave, Carfin. They succeed, with horrific results for Carfin.
It is a relentless film, in which kindness is barely possible, even in the most intimate relations. Ionitsa, a young man pondering his future, considers the possibility of freeing the captured slave; his father refuses to countenance the possibility. A film that begins a bit like an American western (The Searchers is an obvious precedent) ends as a brutal bildungsroman, a lesson to the young son that the world is implacably cruel, self-interest is paramount, and social change is impossible.
It is a hard film, and a film made all the harder by the pervasive humor in its lively dialogue. Ultimately, it is a claustrophobic film, and that is its most remarkable accomplishment. It may be full of hills and horizons and forests and swamps, but the world it depicts is as contained and limited as anything seen in the more traditionally “indoors” films of the contemporary Romanian cinema renaissance.
Image: Teodor Corban (Costandin) and Mihai Comānoiu (Ionitā), AFERIM!, Courtesy of Big World Pictures