Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Aferim!’ is highly recommended

Aferim
Aferim!, directed by Rade Jude, is “a film I’m happy to give my strongest recommendation to,” says Berkeleyside film critic John Seal

The Romanian New Wave peaked a decade ago with such gritty, neo-realist films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Grim commentary on Romania’s changed circumstances post-communism, these films reflected the cultural and political shocks reverberating throughout the country at the turn of the 21st century.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu provided an opportunity for a recent film school graduate named Radu Jude to work second unit for director Cristi Puiu. Now Jude has graduated to making his own features films, and the latest, Aferim!, opens at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco on Friday, Jan. 22. As with last week’s Flowers, no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled.

Lazarescu was the sort of film that once would have been described as ‘torn from today’s headlines’. Aferim!, on the other hand, is an historical drama set in the 1830s, when the Ottoman Empire’s grip on the Balkans was ever so slowly beginning to weaken — not least in the province of Wallachia, where the story is set.

Veteran constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) has been ordered by local boyar Iordache (Alexandru Dabija) to find Carfin, a runaway slave. Accompanied by his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), Costandin sets course for the wilds of Wallachia in search of the boyar’s missing property, and the pair’s quixotic adventures take them from the plains to the mountains and deep into the woods of the region, where they cross paths with wealthy Turks, mendacious churchmen, peasants of all varieties, and Gypsies.

Wallachia’s Gypsies existed at the bottom of the region’s social pecking order, living in conditions of abject servitude and unbelievable poverty. Though considered one step above Jews (as a priest helpfully explains to Costandin and Ionita, while Gypsies are human and therefore possess a soul, Jews were a mistake God made prior to His creation of Adam and Eve), life is no bowl of cherries for the Roma of Romania.

Though Aferim! features no representations of Jewishness, viewers become quite well acquainted with the mistreatment heaped upon the Gypsies of Eastern Europe. Described by their social superiors as crows, the Gypsies suffer the Biblical curse of blackness placed on behalf of their ancestor Ham, the disgraced son of Noah whose story has provided racists inspiration for millennia.

Though Jude’s film is a relentless catalog of injustice, superstition, and ignorance, it smartly refuses to paint Costandin and Ionita as outright villains. Within the context of the society in which he lives, Costandin would probably be described most accurately as a typically, but not especially, prejudiced Wallachian, while Ionita – like all young people – is trying to understand why things are the way they are.

Beautifully shot in 2.35:1 black and white by cinematographer Marius Panduru, Aferim! was Romania’s Oscar hope for 2015. It didn’t get a nomination — perhaps because of its coarse and misogynistic representation of early 19th-century sexuality — but it’s a film I’m happy to give my strongest recommendation to. 2016 is off to a great start!

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.