Radu Jude, 2015, Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic-France
Radu Jude’s film gives voice to a community that has been unrepresented in cinema in a similar way to ‘Embrace of the Serpent’; in this case, the Romani people bought and sold as slaves during the 1800s. It uses primary sources to elaborate on truth with fiction which to me, like ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ and ‘The Witch’, makes this more convincing than claims to “based on a true story”. ‘Aferim!’ ~ an Ottoman Turkish expression translatable more or less as kind of “Bravo!”, but give it a sarcastic spin ~ is set in Wallachia 1835 where a policeman is sent to track down a runaway slave. This policeman, Costandin (Teodor Corba), sets off across Wallachia with his teenage son and it is obvious very soon that he is an abusive, bigoted braggart and that the boy Ionitā (Mihai Comānoiu) is haphazardly but blindly trying to follow his father’s example.
It is when they get a hold of the runaway slave, Carfin (Toma Curzin), who then starts to tell them stories that colour in his humanity that conscience is poked at. It would seem that, yes, the slave is guilty of having an affair with his master’s wife, but it was the wife that seduced him; and also his worldly experience goes far beyond that of his captors. So, perhaps, maybe, he doesn’t deserve death as punishment and they should let him go, Ionitā suggests? It’s not that Costandin disagrees but he’s too afraid of losing the position he has and wrongly assumes holds more influence than it has: he says, rather, that he can persuade the master to mitigate the punishment to a near-death beating. But by the end, the punishment having been horribly meted out, it is obvious that he is dimly aware that he has no power other than that associated with his feudal masters, to do their bidding and that all along he has wallowed in the licence to brutality that allows him without really questioning. If his son so blindly follows his father’s ways afterwards is not known, but it’s obvious that Constadin himself is unlikely to change. He is the middling authority that carries out the prejudices ordained by the rulers. This is brought to the fore when Constadin wonders if people will say a good word about them in a few hundred years: a moment that’s perhaps a little self-conscious but also evidence that maybe this character does have doubts. But he’s too busy enjoying the power of privilege and practicing a casual racism it allows and deluding himself he’s doing good.
‘Aferim!’ as much about human cruelty as an ingredient of history as ‘Hard to be a God’. Having taken incidents and speeches from primary sources only amplifies this argument, as if it was ever in question. Slavery and racism are the backbone of society here with little active kindness on display for mitigation. Indeed, the point is surely that bigotry has always propped up cultures. Few scenes are as despairing as the runaway boy Tintirc (Alberto Dinache) begging for his slavery. It is a beautiful film, defined by Marius Panduru’s black-and-white photography where there are few close-ups, the general view being of mid-shots and panoramas, which keeps the audience at an observer’s distance. ‘Aferim!’ is darkly funny and accessible as a typical Western narrative structure, but it has a documentary feel and neo-realism that is totally European. A demonstration of how discrimination is timeless and a deft character study set in a credibly cinematically recreated past