Since Cristi Puiu’s 2005 breakthrough The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Western European audiences have grown accustomed to seeing a certain kind of film come out of Romania. They came to be known as the Romanian New Wave, and even the most dedicated skeptic of national film movements would have to admit a certain commonality of style, subject and mood amongst these movies. Positioned right at the most formally rigorous end of social realist cinema, they have tended towards despairing tragedy or astonishingly bleak comedy, showing little distinction between Communism and capitalism in their stories of ordinary people being ground down by the powers that be.
Romania’s new entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Radu Jude’s jubilantly titled Aferim!, has a co-writer whose surname is Lazarescu. After that, all resemblance to the cinema of Jude’s countrymen ends. Aferim! is a Western set in Wallachia some time around the 1800s. Its crisp monochrome cinematography has nothing to do with the damp, murky colours of the Romanian New Wave films, and while it is still slow in its camerawork, the slowness feels less punitive and more pleasurable when the camera is taking in horses crossing a mountain rather than rain hitting a window.
Jude tends to pick a camera position and stick with it, occasionally panning when necessary, and his film includes not one close-up. That’s not a bad way to tell the story of an epic journey, but Jude has more on his mind. The father-and-son lawmen at the centre of Aferim!’s story are on a mission, a mission which takes them to the heart of a slave trade few will be aware of. Before Aferim!, only one Romanian film (the lost silent Gypsy Girl in the Bedroom) has addressed the subject of the Roma slave trade. Jude is, if nothing else, brave in taking on such a grave, forgotten subject.
It may be that the tone of Aferim! is perfectly judged to raise this issue with a modern Romanian audience. For an international crowd, it can be hard to know exactly how seriously Jude’s film is to be taken. On the one hand, it ends in wincing brutality and a closing caption explaining that some of the dialogue and incidents are taken directly from the historical record. On the other, its heroes share bawdy songs, bicker with each other, are astonishingly rude to passing strangers and briefly ride with a shrieking bigot of a priest who warns them of the dangers of giant Jews. The spectre of Monty Python, or Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Borat, is not far away in these scenes.
There’s no doubt that Jude is on the side of the angels – he wants to critique the prejudice that led to this trade becoming viable, and he does so without pity or apologetics. But there is a disconnect, sometimes intriguing, sometimes frustrating, between his film’s visuals and its dialogue. Imagine audio from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained being played over images from Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, and you’re getting close to the strange stew Jude is serving up here.
For all it can be hard to get a handle on Aferim!, its oddness does save it from being another comfortable message movie about how things were bad in the past. The patriarch Constandin’s hybridisation of his racial and sexual anxieties (the runaway slave he is pursuing is charged with sleeping with his master’s wife, something Constandin finds fascinating and repellent at the same time) represents a kind of bigotry that was recognisable to Shakespeare when he wrote Othello, and is still familiar now. Teodor Corban is such a whirlwind of malicious energy in this role, it’s possible that Jude excluded close-ups out of a fear this monster would be too magnetic if audiences got a clear look at him. Aferim! still manages to make an emotional connection with the audience without them, not least during an intimate candle-lit scene where Constandin’s son expresses his moral misgivings about their line of work. Without creating an unrealistic epiphany, Jude and Corban do enough to let you know that the older bounty-hunter might share those misgivings too.
AFERIM! is out now on StudioCanal DVD