From the opening moments of Romanian director Radu Jude’s Silver Bear-winning Aferim! (2015) we instantly recognize the cinematic terrain. In a low-contrast black-and-white palette against a cloud-strewn sky, the stark silhouette of a thistle tree reminiscent of the flora of the American desert is buttressed by stiff winds while a twangy folk song plays on the soundtrack. Before the title of the film appears in spaghetti-western typeface, we are immersed in the tropes of a very familiar genre.

Against a dry, undulating landscape, we hear someone in the middle of telling a tale as a two-man posse trots into view. The tale is of Caragea’s plague (named for the Ottoman-sent ruler it is often blamed on), which swept through Bucharest in 1813 – 1814, leaving 60,000 dead and even more displaced – “worse still were the living abandoned with no cover on the frozen fields,” according to the teller. The teller is Constandin, the rider in the lead who has apparently witnessed and survived this calamity, something we infer when the date and place – Wallachia 1835 – appear on screen as the duo continue on until they are once again out of view. 

More inferences follow. Constandin (Teodor Corban) is a constable sent by his boyar (the fearsome Alexandru Dabija) to track down and return an escaped slave (Toma Cuzin) who is accused of stealing silver before also fleeing. In the world of westerns, Constandin is the bounty hunter: jaded, weary, probably dying, and working for a fee. Sharing the trail is his young charge, his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), who is frequently on the receiving end of his father’s monologues – variously sprinkled with such histories but also warnings, aphorisms, secrets, laments, musings, poems, and jokes, it is as if a foul-mouthed Walter Brennan was, for once, in charge of John Wayne. It all seems so familiar, yet we are in the unknown – or, more accurately, the oblivion, as Jude uses this bounty hunt on horseback as a microcosm for the nearly five centuries of enslavement suffered by the Romã in Romania, a history long since buried.

Set about two decades before slavery was abolished in Romania, the story of Aferim! is culled from a trove of primary sources (listed in the film’s end credits) that Jude used to craft the situations and conversations. The places along the way – the monastery, the fairgrounds, the inn – look as if they’ve been pulled from the travelogues and drawings of the many visiting Frenchmen, who would collect them into books like the mid-19th century Voyage illustré dans les cinq parties du monde en 1846, 1847, 1848, 1849 (“Illustrated journey in the five parts of the world in 1846, 1847, 1848, 1849”), published back home as a bit of Orientalist curiosity. 

Jude and his co-writer Florin Lazarescu derived the dialogue from the writings of Romanian folklorists (early 19th century musicologist and composer Anton Pann gets a credit for the film’s music), monks, revolutionaries, poets, and landholders of previous centuries, who, while I can’t parse exact sources, said some alarming things about who is human, who is satanic, who stole all the leeches from the river, and for what reasons and with what object a husband could lawfully beat his wife. In Aferim! they are delivered like wisdom yet come across as absurdities, emitted in the deadpan style of the Romanian New Wave, a movement often prized for its use of black humour in the face of a dark past. A stranded priest (Alexandru Bindea), whom father and son stop to help with his broken wagon wheel, pithily stereotypes every single nationality he can think of (“the French like fashion a lot”; “Gypsies get many beatings”; “Armenians are lazy”), save the Romanians (who are “put on this Earth to love, honour, and suffer like good Christians”). Constandin agrees at first, but seems put off as the diatribe goes on, responding only with “Lovely thoughts, father.” It’s something you should be able to say about a priest’s words, and it might be the funniest line in a film that is filled with them.  

Typical of a western, there is the trail, the search, as well as seemingly random confrontations along the way that may be immaterial to the plot but enlighten nonetheless. In this case, about the era and the type of men necessary to its atrocities. An old woman hauling her feverish husband in the bed of a wagon gets cursed out for not warning of the danger before Constandin and his son approach (“You should have told us yourself, stupid cow!” is the mildest). A carriage-load of travellers is found massacred in the woods and, when the son points out that one is still breathing, the father makes an excuse as he gallops away (“What are we, surgeons?”). When a speeding carriage hogs the pathway in a dense part of the woods nearly causing an accident, its passenger is assumed to be Greek and gets a good cursing (“May he live three more days, counting yesterday!”). A young Romã slave they simply take from an estate laughs when Constandin jokes about a potential whipping (“Where a boyar strikes, new skin grows”). There is even a jurisdictional dispute where guns are drawn, but none fired because it is quickly settled with a surreptitious exchange of coin and information. The film is rich in other references as well: there is Yorick’s Hamlet speech, complete with tossed skull, and, mostly significantly, to Victor Iliu’s landmark of Romanian cinema about compromised morality, La moara cu noroc (The Mill of Good Luck, 1955), which was shot in equally evocative tones of black and white. 

As the search intensifies so does the violence, both rhetorical and actual. Early on, Constandin and his son invade a peaceful camp of gold panners along a river’s edge, threatening, harassing, and running down one who dares to flee. The scene is a testament to the systemic oppression characteristic of minority rule, when the vastly outnumbered posse easily subdue the ragged crowd. Now clear of the encampment with a valued scrap of intel, Constandin passes on a lesson to his son that has dire reverberations near the film’s end: “a good butcher does not fear thousands and thousands of sheep.” (Which historical figure, you might wonder in this terrible moment, thought it necessary to write that down?)

Throughout, Constandin is trying to pass on his know-how in hopes that his son will have some kind of sustainable life (though it seems the best he can hope for is to “live through a war or two” then become an officer), but he’s also passing on the ambiguities, the inconsistencies, the hypocrisies. When Ionita reads their official warrant at the gypsy camp, Constandin silences him when he gets to the part that they, too, are under penalty of death. When they find the runaway and the return part of their journey begins, we learn new truths that are no longer about bringing a criminal to justice. Constandin might be regretful, but his rationalisations are lined up from years of practice (“I never beat a soul for nothing”). It is the carefully listening son, who has been heeding his father’s lessons all along, mimicked his prejudices, and even abetted his cruelties, who quietly asks after a night of celebratory carousing: “What if we said we couldn’t find him?” Jude is showing us how it’s passed on, but also how it changes, albeit very slowly and at enormous cost.

Aferim! (2015 Romania 108 mins)

Prod Co: Big World Pictures Dir: Radu Jude Scr: Radu Jude and Florin Lazarescu Phot: Marius Panduru Prod des: Augustina Stanciu Art dir: Adrian Cristea Cos des: Dana Paparuz Music: Anton Pann, Trei Parale Ed: Caralin Cristutiu

Cast: Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Toma Cuzin, Alberto Dinache, Alexandru Bindea, and Alexandru Dabija

About The Author

Shari Kizirian edits the program books for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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