It is the exclamation point in the title of “Aferim!” that seems to illustrate its creators’ intentions. A harsh, unflinching Romanian drama set in the 19th century, the film is – against all odds – very, very funny. (The title means “Bravo,” and, the Wiktionary tells us, it often has an ironic meaning.)
Using the tropes of a Western and utilizing real narrative situations and dialogue from historical documents, “Aferim!” feels like an angry shout against the unbendable laws of the time. While Romania’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards did not earn a nomination, it certainly deserved one.
And what a grim, violent, prejudiced time it was. Consider that every Gypsy onscreen is referred to as a “crow,” and many are forced to work as slaves.
In this picturesque Eastern European landscape (shot in deceptively gorgeous black and white), one such Gypsy slave is on the run. He is Carfin (Toma Cuzin), and he fled his estate following an affair with a nobleman’s wife.
Tasked to find him is our “hero,” a constable named Costandin (exceptionally played by Teodor Corban). He is the type of person who thoughtfully tells a priest, “Each nation has its purpose. The Jews, to cheat; the Turks, to do harm; us Romanians to love, honor and suffer like good Christians.”
Costandin is therefore one of the more remarkably unself-aware characters in recent cinema, one fond of aphorisms like, “When a wise man opens his mouth, open your ears.”
Many of these life lessons are imparted to his teenage son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), who has joined him on the hunt.
He’s a father who yells at his son to try some brandy, shouting “Drink like a man.” And later, shortly before buying the boy some time with a prostitute, asks, “You’re not a Sodomite, are you? Because if you are, I’ll drown you with my own hands.”
That’s Costandin, a buffoonish authority figure who nevertheless accomplishes his mission. The duo finds Carfin shirtless and running, and gather him up, along with a luckless young boy named Tintiric.
The remainder of the film is a “Last Detail”-like march toward Carfin’s grim fate. They sell Tintiric along the way in a heartbreaking scene, and find time for a prostitute while staying at a raucous tavern.
They also ponder what to do about Carfin. Does he deserve to be killed, or at the very least beaten, by the nobleman? However they look at it, as Costandin puts it near film’s end, “That’s our law.”
The finale is the film’s most violent section, and hammers home its themes of the utter foolishness of deeply held prejudices, and the horrors that result from male posturing. Knowing that so much of the dialogue comes from historical documents means the experience is even more insightful.
In doing so, director Radu Jude has made a sharper, more memorable Western than Quentin Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight.” Jude’s third feature earned him the Silver Bear for best director at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. It moves him to the upper echelon of Romanian filmmakers, a stellar list that also includes Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) and Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”).
This group is responsible for cinema that is harsh, moving and relentless. “Aferim!” is funnier than most of the other entries that make up the Romanian New Wave, but it is no less powerful.
And in Costandin, we have a character worthy of being called unforgettably daft. “Man is asked to beat his wife, but with kindness,” he says. How utterly, wonderfully absurd.
Starring: Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Toma Cuzin, Alexandru Dabija
Director: Radu Jude
Running time: 108 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but R equivalent for violence, language, adult situations and brief nudity. In Romanian with English subtitles.
The Lowdown: In early 19th century Romania, a constable and his son are hired to find a Gypsy slave who has run away from his estate after having an affair with a nobleman’s wife.