A tale of Gypsy slavery in 19th-century Romania
by Stefan Dobroiu, Cineuropa
BERLIN 2015: Radu Jude’s third feature explores the social inequalities of those times, but also the relationship we have with the past
Shown in the Berlinale competition, Radu Jude’s black-and-white historical drama Aferim! is proof that Romanian cinema is exploring new genres and themes:
the events take place in 1835 Wallachia (Romania’s southern region), where gendarme Costandin (Teodor Corban) begins a journey with his son, Ioniţă (newcomer Mihai Comănoiu), to search for a Gypsy slave who has run away from his boyar’s estate after having an affair with his wife. The stakes are high for Costandin, in a world where the powerful have the right to decide whether the weak live or die: knowing that his days as a gendarme are numbered, the ageing protagonist hopes that by bringing back the Gypsy, he will work his way into the boyar’s good books, thus ensuring a successful military career for young Ioniţă.
Set for a domestic release on 6 March, Aferim! may prove controversial in Romania, where information about Gypsy slavery during the country’s past was carefully redacted during the communist regime, and where the issue is more politically relevant than it is elsewhere in Europe.
The screenplay written by Jude together with Florin Lăzărescu sees Costandin set off on many adventures, and several encounters with colourful characters paint a portrait of both 19th-century Romania and a present-day Europe that is still immensely fragmented in spite of decades of unification efforts. A conversation with a character who describes – in a prejudice-riddled monologue – the characteristics and personalities of Romania’s neighbouring countries and peoples will make the audience laugh and, hopefully, reflect on what has changed during the last 180 years in terms of how we think about those around us.
Costandin and Ioniţă’s tribulations during their search for the runaway slave Carfin (Cuzin Toma) highlight a series of social challenges in 19th-century Romania: religion, hierarchies, slavery, the relationships between the rich and the poor, between fathers and sons, and between husbands and wives – all seen through the eyes of Costandin. This flawed but loveable protagonist does not miss any opportunity to pass comment, using rhyming proverbs, jokes, bons mots and even riddles (a nightmare for any translator) to offer his point of view about the realities of those times. The screenplay uses these folkloric elements as an invitation for the audience to think about the differences – but mostly the similarities – between the past and the present.
An impressive production effort, Aferim! fills the screen with village fairs, noisy inns and empty country roads, on which a good horse was more highly valued than a car in our times. This is a very uncommon feature for the obstinately minimalist Romanian cinema, and a courageous endeavour by director Jude and producer Ada Solomon. Everything is shot with black-and-white exuberance by DoP Marius Panduru’s camera, an aesthetic choice that adds to the feeling that the events on the screen, although familiar and with their own consequences in the present, form part of a long-gone era.
Eastern Europe, 1835. Two riders cross a barren landscape in the middle of Wallachia. They are the gendarme Costandin and his son. Together they are searching for a 'gypsy slave' who has run away from his nobleman master and is suspected of having an affair with the noble's wife. Whilst the unflappable Costandin comments on every situation with a cheery aphorism, his son takes a more contemplative view of the world. On their odyssey they encounter people of different nationalities and beliefs: Turks and Russians, Christians and Jews, Romanians and Hungarians. Each harbours prejudices against the others which have been passed down from generation to generation. And even when the 'slave' Carfin is found, the adventure is far from over ... A moving parable about late-feudal Europe developed from historical documents and songs: its power structures and hierarchies, people's idea of themselves and others, interaction with minorities and the resulting conflicts. A Balkan Western in black-and-white which brings the cacophony of the times strikingly to life and explores the thematic arcs which stretch into the present.