AFERIM!, drama/ad­ven­ture/com­edy, not rated, in Ro­ma­nian, Turk­ish, and Ro­many with sub­ti­tles, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Michael Abatemarco

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)

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