by Matt Levine
Like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows, the Romanian Aferim! is a beautiful, funny, sometimes invigorating film about (in part) the awfulness of man. This apparent contradiction actually doesn’t seem too unusual given the movie’s unique setting: 1830s Wallachia (today a region of Romania), a time in which power-hungry boyars and upper-class merchants ruled over Gypsy slaves and “lowly” foreigners such as Turks and Russians. A lawman named Constandin (Teodor Corban) and his son/deputy Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) search the mountainous terrain for an escaped slave named Carfin (Cuzin Toma), who’s been accused of sleeping with the wife of one brutally sadistic boyar (always referred to as “Bright Lord” by his constituents). As Constandin and Ionita encounter a motley ensemble who voice a horrible litany of prejudices and hatreds, one might hope that the two main characters will undergo a change of heart and allow Carfin to escape unharmed. Aferim!, however, stays true to its bitterly cynical worldview, depicting characters who care only about themselves in a struggle simply to survive.
Saturday, April 9, 9:20 pm
Thursday, April 21, 4:55 pm
Director: Radu Jude
Producer: Ada Solomon
Writers: Radu Jude, Florin Lazarescu
Cinematographer: Marius Panduru
Editor: Catalin Cristutiu
Cast: Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Cuzin Toma, Alexandru Dabija, Alexandru Bindea, Luminata Gheorghiu, Victor Rebengiuc, Victor Rebengiuc, Alberto Dinache
Country: Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic
Writer-director Radu Jude (Everybody in Our Family) balances these people’s deplorable nature with a wealth of gallows humor and gorgeous widescreen black-and-white compositions, which prevent the movie’s pessimism from turning the whole experience sour. And lest we assume that Jude’s cynicism is excessive, he reminds us (in an onscreen title at the end of the film) that much of the plot and even specific chunks of dialogue were taken directly from historical records. The rampant bigotry on display—a priest who spouts a vitriolic diatribe about Jews, or many characters’ opinions on the inferiority of women—thus becomes a cautionary tale about how terrible we can be (and, Jude implicitly suggests, how far we should have come over the last century and a half). Departing from the naturalism of his Romanian New Wave compatriots, Radu Jude makes a striking, haunting, and artful film whose historical setting has much to say about our own contentious modernity. Its worldview might be profoundly bleak, but Aferim! is also a hell of a rush.