If you’re looking for a reason to be grateful you’re alive in the era of Donald Trump, ISIS, the Oregon militia standoff, and an all-time high in mass shootings, look no further than Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude’s Aferim!. Maybe the world isn’t in an especially sunny place right now, but compared to 1800s Wallachia, it’s a paradise. Aferim! is a terrific film about horrible people living in a horrible time. Nearly every character depicted here is guilty of being awful to one degree or another; most of the principal human beings that figure into Jude’s plot are bigoted toward just about every ethnic group imaginable, and self-identified compassionate types casually shrug at torture. Even puppet shows put on at fairs revel in brutality.
But that’s more or less the point, and where the film’s title comes into play. Aferim!, the opening credits proclaim: “Bravo!” or “Well done!” It’s a sick joke and a smirking introduction to this period in Romanian history, a declarative remark made at the movie’s onset and repeated throughout its running time. You get the sense that Jude employs the term with only the utmost sarcasm. No deed here is well done or deserving of cheers; no action take is commendable, worthy of merit, or decent. When anyone does conjure up thoughts of kindness, they are mockingly dismissed. The film is pretty clearly intended as an embarrassed backward glance at Romania’s roots as a country and as a culture, which is to say that nothing Judge chooses to showcase through his lens is especially flattering.
It is, however, grossly captivating, more so than it has any right to be. It is even often lovely, a gorgeous black and white presentation captured in widescreen to highlight nature’s stunning glory as well as the beautiful design work from Jude’s crew. The artistry here is necessarily pristine as a way of emphasizing the ugliness of Aferim!‘s narrative, which revolves around a lawman, Costandin (Teodor Corban), on a mission with his partner and son, Ionita (Mihai Comănoiu), to track down and return a runaway Romani slave named Carfin (Toma Cuzin) to the tender mercies of the local boyar, who has accused Carfin of theft. He’s actually guilty of a much worse transgression – sleeping with the boyar’s wife – but we don’t learn that until Costandin and Ionita catch up with Carfin, bind him up, and begin the long journey toward justice.
Throughout, our heroic duo encounter fellow travelers and stumble upon the various inhabitants of Wallachia’s vast expanse; these brushes invariably lead into displays of abuse, whether verbal or physical (and sometimes both). After helping fix a stranded priest’s wagon wheel, Costandin asks his opinion on whether or not gypsies are, in fact, human. The priest answers in the affirmative, but that bright spot on the movie’s moral darkness is immediately clouded over when he goes on a lengthy and very specific diatribe regarding his hatred of Jews. It’s an ugly moment that makes all of Costandin’s ugly moments look downright charitable, though of course he remains a boor and a brute no matter how bad Wallachia’s spiritual leaders might actually be. If you want to know what kind of Aferim! is, just compare Costandin to the people he, Ionita, and Carfin come across as they trek back to the boyar. Costandin might not be a good person by modern standards – he vociferously berates strangers, pays a prostitute to take Ionita’s virginity, and sells a child into indentured servitude – but in relation to his fellow countrymen, he might be the best that we can hope for in context with the film.
Costandin is as quick with jokes and songs as he is with threats and manhandling. In Aferim!‘s final half hour, he even proves introspective. “I wonder,” he muses aloud to Ionita as they ride on horseback, “a few hundred years from now, d’you think folks will say a good word about us?” Man, if only he had the opportunity to sit through even a half hour of Jude’s movie. That Aferim! is often hilarious does little but temporarily offset the transgressions committed by its cast. Call the film a modern Western, call it a fresh entry in the Romanian New Wave of cinema, but whatever you choose to call it, make certain not to neglect what it is at its core: A snapshot of old hatreds that, despite being set in Jude’s homeland, run universally to us all.