When Aferim! debuted at the Berlin Film Festival a year ago, some called it a Romanian 12 Years a Slave. Now that it's on U.S. screens, there's an even closer analogy: Aferim! is Romania's The Hateful Eight.
Both movies are revisionist Westerns, with verbosely profane dialogue and stories shadowed by racism and slavery. Yet there are two notable differences: Aferim! was shot in crystalline black-and-white, and is more sparing in its depiction of violence. Its brutal payoff transpires off-camera, and involves just one victim. Among the most savage events actually shown is a Punch and Judy-style puppet show, a comment on violence that demonstrates director and co-writer Radu Jude's subtlety and empathy.
The story opens with a widescreen shot of mountains — not the Rockies, but still fairly rugged. We hear voices first, as a man describes a cholera outbreak whose ravages convey the harshness of life in Wallachia, southern Romania, in 1835. Then two men on horseback ride into view, across the broad vista, and out the other side.
This is a Romanian film, so the camera doesn't move, and there are no edits or zoom-ins. Later, Jude will become a little more familiar with his characters, but close-ups are not to his taste. The audience is kept at a distance, its view sometimes blocked by trees, animals, or crowds of ragtag people.
The garrulous man on horseback is Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable currently serving as a bounty hunter. The teenager with him, too gawky and green for his uniform and sword, turns out to be Costandin's son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). The men are in pursuit of a runaway gypsy slave, Carfin (Cuzin Toma, star of another current Romanian film, The Treasure). When they find him, Carfin also has plenty to say.
Slavery was abolished in Romania just a few years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and the gypsies seen in Aferim! have roughly the same status as slaves in the antebellum American South. They're even called "crows," and their plight justified because they're supposedly descendants of Ham, cursed by God to be black. (The movie ends with a list of historical sources for its fascinating depiction of 19th-century Romanian customs, behavior, and attitudes.)
1830s Wallachia is a multicultural land, and not happy about it. It's part of the Ottoman empire — "Aferim" is the Ottoman-Turkish equivalent of "bravo" — yet increasingly dominated by Russia. When Costandin and Ionita help a priest with a broken cart, he impugns the characters of many nationalities in a series of one-liners. The constable asks if gypsies are human. Yes, the cleric replies, but Jews are not.
Although set in a different milieu than any other recent import from the Romanian cinema, Aferim! has familiar aspects. Like many films set in contemporary Bucharest, this is a story of self-styled potentates, small-time graft, and inevitable disappointment.
Incorrigibly vulgar and habitually insulting to women and gypsies, Costandin seems monstrous at first. But he's less a bully than a traveling-salesman type, with well-worn patter in continual flow. The constable has a joke or a curse for every occasion, notably as he rides away from an encounter with a Turkish aristocrat: "May he live three more days, including yesterday."
Costandin is boorish and bellicose, yet not without compassion. While he shares his compatriots' prejudices against gypsies, he still entreats the lord who hired him to show some mercy. But he's asking the wrong man, in the wrong era, in the wrong country.