Directed by Radu Jude
Starring Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Toma Cuzin, Alexandru Dabija and Luminita Gheorghiu
Set in early 19th century Romania, a policeman, Costandin, is hired by a nobleman to find a Gypsy slave who has run away from his estate after having an affair with his wife.
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★★★★½ review by SBT on Letterboxd
Aferim! reminds me most of Hard to Be a God: to be sure, it's cleaner and funnier, and its sumptuous black and white photography and splendid landscapes also make it prettier to watch. But underneath all these lays, just as in German's film, a terrible bleakness. Aferim! may well be the most important movie made in Romania since the New Wave kicked off in 2001 with The Stuff and the Dough.
There's a curious lack of political or social critique to many early Romanian New Wave movies; as good as they are, their realism is largely observational - they display a local state of affairs without questioning it especially deeply, instead preferring to generalize it into some type of philosophical or moral statement. Jude's focalizing character, Constadin, a constable in 1835 Vallachia sent off to catch a boyar's runaway gipsy slave, rarely speaks in anything other than proverbs, examples and broad stereotypes. His world, which he traverses with his young son Ioniță, is on the cusp of modernization (historically speaking). In reality, it is organized in a vertical system of oppression that implacably privileges despotic authority. Money helps, of course, as in the case of the boyar, but it is merely an external sign of power not its cause. Power reverberates downwards along this vertical system, relentlessly oppressing whomever happens to be below, until, at the lowest rung, occupied by gipsies and women there is nothing but grotesque violence left. Constadin who takes pride in his honesty is dimly aware (as is his son) of the injustice of it all, but rationalizes it into a fatalistic world view that accepts suffering as an ontological given and sees no real use for compassion.
Aferim! (the title means "Bravo!" in, I'm going to say Turkish, but it could be Greek) is overtly, almost shamelessly didactic. It addresses both the horrific systemic anti-gipsy racism and the inherent sexism of Romanian society by having its characters speak in an unbearable stream of racist and misogynistic jokes, insults, proverbs that seemed to be perpetually deflecting the characters' attention from their own oppression. The effect is disturbing precisely because of how familiar this discourse seems, echoing both the complacency and the casual cruelty towards the weak and the powerless that still dominate Romanian society. There is something infuriating about seeing the existential passivity of the characters, but that's precisely because this passivity resonates, uncomfortably, with the present: slaves advertise themselves at the market (the film is historically accurate), an abused wife suffers not because of the abuse, but because she finds it unbecoming with her status as a priest's daughter, the constable accepts spousal violence because it is both religiously and legally codified and so forth. Jude's recourse to history is angry, instead of allusive or parabolic: he offers no refuge in the remoteness of a more primitive past. Instead, the too familiar discourse of racism and sexism suggests a society suffering from historical aphasia: caught in a perpetually occulted past, blithely enacting the same cycle of oppression and complicit to its own suffering.
★★★½ review by Michael Sicinski on Letterboxd
What do you get if you filter the medieval barbarism of German's Hard to Be a God through the brisk pacing, snappy dialogue, and bitter comic nihilism of the Coen brothers?
Well, pretty much this. And it actually works.
★★★★ review by Jordi Sánchez-Navarro on Letterboxd
'Aferim!' es una suerte de western satírico rumano que contrasta su viaje al corazón de la miseria absoluta con sus diálogos hilarantes. Cada una de sus frases es oro puro. Rara y buena.
★★★★ review by preston on Letterboxd
More conventional than Hard to Be a God or Honor de Cavalleria, lacking the former's wallow in physical grossness and the latter's narrative perversity, but otherwise matching them in immersive atmosphere and mordant humour, respectively - and in fact it's greater than either because it builds a convincing vision of the 19th-century past (still quite mediaeval, this being rural Romania) where cruelty and injustice are part of life yet also shows people being good or bad regardless, not just the monolithic un-woke savages implied by the usual wagging finger. The staging is impressive, the b&w images elegant - but Jude also has a sense of comedy (a priest's racist rant is transformed by how hilariously angry he is) and the nous to make his hero a basically decent, salt-of-the-earth type (he keeps his word to the Gypsy) without for a moment making him 'modern' or raising him above the prejudices of his time. Humanity is rough, but there's stories and sayings and colourful insults to make life worth living ("May he live three more days, counting yesterday!"); you can see how/why people accepted such cruelties as normal, not really caring what folks in "a few hundred years" would think - then a shocking finale, and a coda (Costandin taking solace in his son) that could just as easily be touching or cynical. Fatherly advice: "When you're drunk, don't give gifts".
[P.S. Thinking about it later, it occurred to me that Costandin's impotence (with the prostitute) is also a key moment, because impotence (in the face of larger forces) is probably the main theme here. All these people bluster and hustle, yet the System rolls on unchangingly; maybe that's why the film seemed so tender, despite its cruelties.]
★★★★ review by Still Here🏳️🌈 on Letterboxd
About world's order; about slaves and masters, our place in the world. The film is set back in time but we can feel so closely our modern world in it. In one of the greatest monologues in the film a priest lists what kind of people different nationalities are with stereotypes. That speech basically condenses the idiotic nationalism which still simmers in this world which is suppose to be more "international" than ever before. Also the ending scenes of the film are painfully powerful somewhere underneath when on the screen we see people who simply accept their fates and positions. I was strongly reminded about both Mizoguchi film Sansho the Bailiff and Mika Waltari's epic and great novel "The Egyptian". It is though surprisingly lively for being so dark. I think that Aferim! will stand the test of time, that it will grow within the next watches. What now has taken over me is wonderment. This puzzling feeling is still only a feeling but because it is strong I think I somehow know what this film is about. It makes me sad but like every great piece of art does, also ultimately satisfied. It isn't just Black&White Romanian "Western". It is human story that has been repeating itself from the very begin... I want to see this again!
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