AFERIM!, drama/adventure/comedy, not rated, in Romanian, Turkish, and Romany with subtitles, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
Set in Wallachia in the early 19th century, Aferim! is one of at least two films opening Friday, Feb. 19, that are inspired by centuries- old folk stories or song. The other is Robert Eggers’ The Witch, set in 17thcentury New England, but the two films are worlds apart in terms of their narratives and themes. Aferim! is a dialogue- driven, intimate adventure film about a constable named Costandin (Teodoro Corban) and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), on a mission to bring back a runaway Gypsy slave, Carfin (Toma Cuzin), who’s been accused of theft by his master Iordache (Alexandru Dabija).
Shot in stark black and white, Aferim! feels like an older film, even down to the look of the credits. Costandin and Ionita traverse an alternately beautiful and foreboding Romanian landscape on horseback while hot on the escaped slaves’ trail. Their adventure brings them into contact with Turks, Russians, Christians, Romanians, and others, who all harbor deep-set resentments and bigoted attitudes toward one another. A priest who becomes their traveling companion for a spell holds forth on the biblical justifications for enslaving Gypsies and his hatred for Jews, but his animated, excited line delivery makes his angry tirade play more comically than straight. Throughout their journey, the pompous, jovial, and determined Costandin spouts aphorism after aphorism, blissfully unaware of their meaninglessness. Most of the comic dialogue comes from Costandin, but takes another twist once Carfin the slave has been captured. That’s when Costandin and Ionita learn the truth: Carfin is no thief, but slept with his master’s wife after, he claims, she threw herself at him. Carfin has a pretty good reason not go back and is in fear for his life. Aferim! has been drawing comparisons from critics to 12 Years a Slave,
The Searchers, and even Pulp Fiction, due to its snappy, drawn-out scenes of dialogue, but there are deeper messages embedded here. Costandin, while not a slave, is also bound by duty to serve a master. His son, the straight man in this duo, has better sense and a bigger heart, although both men treat Carfin with increasing respect and humanity as the film progresses. Carfin does his best to convince his captors to set him free, knowing the harsh treatment he’ll face when he returns. Costandin’s reassurances seem naive at best and, at worst, are meant only to placate Carfin until the journey is over.
Aferim! never goes in quite the direction that one expects. Its heartrending climax is difficult to watch, but note the acceptance with which characters treat the things they’ve witnessed during the film’s closing scenes. Physical torments, as Costandin tells Carfin late in the film, pass with time. The tragedy is that, in the hearts and minds of men, hatred and indifference endure.
Weary travelers: Teodoro Corban (foreground)