The politics of multiethnic empire are dissected in Aferim!, Radu Jude’s dense and mordant Western set in 1835 in Wallachia, a section of Romania then occupied by the Ottomans and Russians. The story is simple: A jaundiced constable and his nebbish son journey to retrieve an escaped gypsy slave. The web of feudalistic relationships is ugly, filled with prejudice borne by nationalism and religion. In one scene, a priest traces the gypsies to the rejected son of Noah (of Noah’s Ark), before proceeding to speak of blood libel and “Giant Jews” and stereotyping Italians as liars, Russians as drinkers, and the British as thinkers. Combined with the film’s look—35mm, black-and-white—this coarseness lends Aferim! authenticity. Shot in long takes comprising long and medium shots, Aferim! is nevertheless paced conventionally, although it’s digressive. Aferim! means “Bravo!”, a sarcastic jab at the inhumanity that transpires over the course of the movie. Yet the violence isn’t fetishistic, the movie isn’t a pessimist tract: the constable demonstrates a surprising amount of reason and sympathy. Unlike sentimental narratives that sanitize history, Aferim! doesn’t chart the vectors of progress in less than two hours. And, unless characters are playing instruments, there is no score imposed on the film—bravo to that.
In Romanian & Turkish & Romany
By Alec Julian & Carrie White