The Romanian New Wave’s decade-plus run as one of international cinema’s most exciting creative niches continues with Aferim!, a film that ventures away from the movement’s aesthetic in one important regard. Where many of the most celebrated Romanian films—such as 2005’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)—are set in the present (or in the relatively recent past), director Radu Jude’s road movie journeys back to the 19th century. And yet, Aferim! couldn’t be more contemporary in its themes: Bigotry and fear grip the characters in ways that will be uncomfortably familiar to modern eyes.
It’s the year 1835, and a father and son are crossing the desolate Romanian countryside on horseback. The soldier Costandin (Teodor Corban) has orders to bring back a runaway gypsy slave named Carfin, and he has brought along his impressionable teen son Ionit? (Mihai Com?noiu) so that the lad can gain some real-world experience if he hopes to join the military. But because Aferim! is something of a parable, their quest is littered with stops along the way, each vignette suggesting the racism and misogyny rampant in this feudal land.
Jude’s first film was 2009’s The Happiest Girl in the World, a sad-faced comedy about a provincial, dysfunctional family traveling to the big city so that their moody daughter can star in a juice commercial. That title was ironic, of course, and so is Aferim!’s: The word roughly translates to “bravo!” in English, and indeed there’s little for the people of Romania to be proud of in this movie. In the world of Aferim! , it’s unwise to be gay, Jewish, a woman or someone who would dare cross a feudal lord. Shot in black-and-white to emphasize the cold, cruel past, the film conveys a harsh beauty that’s part Western and part surreal travelogue—it’s almost akin to The Seventh Sign. (Like in Ingmar Bergman’s film, Aferim! makes room for a deadly illness sweeping through the community.)
Though Jude and cowriter Florin L?z?rescu have drawn from archival sources to ground their story in actual events, Aferim! allegorizes Costandin’s search so that it becomes a despairingly universal lament about the casual evil that resides in every village, every family in Romania—and beyond. In fact, evil is so commonplace it doesn’t even present itself as wickedness: Costandin believes he’s raising Ionit? to be a pragmatic, assertive man, but from our vantage point we see only the passing down of prejudice. (Costandin isn’t acting alone, either. When he and his boy cross paths with a kindly, old Catholic priest, asking him if gypsies are even human beings, the priest states empathically that they are. Jews, on the other hand…well, don’t get the priest started on their wretchedness.)
About halfway through Aferim!, our main characters do encounter their slave bounty, and Cuzin Toma plays Carfin without any sort of patronizing, quiet dignity. Probably intentionally, Jude leaves the character a bit blurry, providing Carfin with a plausible explanation for why he fled, fearful that he’d be punished for an adulterous act he didn’t initiate. We have no way of knowing if Carfin is telling the truth, which is just another way that Jude asks us to examine the everyday assumptions we make about different groups. But what matters is that Costandin, egged on by his sympathetic son, starts to believe this slave, which makes their return trip to Carfin’s village result in a spiky, morally fraught resolution.
The Romanian New Wave has often prized an almost real-time examination of seemingly mundane events in order to illustrate a greater societal wrong. (The most common setting in these intimate films is a dingy room in a grubby apartment, usually in the quiet hours of the night.) With its widescreen, black-and-white compositions, Aferim! feels grander, but that sense of life lived close to the bone remains. Corban plays Costandin with snarled simplicity: We intuit that he’s a well-meaning man who long ago learned you have to watch your back and screw the other guy before he gets you first.
The film’s dark point isn’t that humanity is essentially rotten, it’s that, in a pinch, people will look out for themselves at the expense of others who could use the help. Com?noiu’s withdrawn turn as Ionit? makes it difficult to know what, if anything, this boy is picking up from his old man. What’s scariest about Aferim! is its unspoken suggestion that prejudice isn’t something we learn—it’s just something we accept as part of the flow of everyday life.
Director: Radu Jude
Writers: Radu Jude, Florin L?z?rescu
Starring: Teodor Corban, Mihai Com?noiu, Cuzin Toma, Alexandru Dabija, Alexandru Bindea, Luminita Gheorghiu
Release Date: January 22, 2016
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.