Set in 1830s Wallachia, this shaggy drama is rife with foul behaviour but also contains tenderness and a gallows humour reminiscent of Robert Altman’s best work.
Aferim is a Turkish loan word Romanians use for “bravo”, but with a slight sarcastic edge. (Think “Oh, braaaaavo.”) It is repeated by pretty much every character in this shaggy manhunt through 1830s Wallachia, as if the movie itself is winking its awareness that these characters, while still sympathetic, are all wretched and deplorable. Aferim! is rife with foul behaviour, vulgar racism, sexism and a general low opinion of human life. A moral peak is, for example, when a lead character suggests perhaps a prisoner shouldn’t be summarily executed, just beaten to the point of near-death in the most humiliating fashion. (Heartwarming!) And yet, as with so many Romanian films, Radu Jude’s approach is one of deadpan humour, born from a world-weary culture grappling with a bumpy history that seems to have only one constant: people were made to suffer.
Costandin (Teodor Corban) and Ionitā (Mihai Comānoiu) are a father-and-son team of lawmen commissioned to hunt down an escaped slave. We ease into the story slowly as the pair wander through a stagnant feudal landscape, making a mess wherever they search. Early on they encounter a priest who gives a raging sermon about the Jews, the Turks and the slave Gypsies, who are given a number of epithets, the most common (and least offensive) being “crows”.
“The beasts would tear us apart,” the priest lectures, arguing a position of strength, and our protagonists neither agree nor disagree. They just want him to stop talking.
In time they discover the escaped slave Carfin (Toma Cuzin) working for a farmer. He is shot in the rear and flung over a horse to be brought back to the “Bright Lord”. For reasons less clear they also yank Tintiric (Alberto Dinache) a precocious slave boy. It seems as if Costandin starts taking a shine to Tintiric, and the movie headfakes toward some sort of humanity, especially as they end up at some sort of carnival with an early form of ferris wheel. Then Costandin turns around and sells the devastated boy at a bargain rate, since he has no papers on him.