Thursday, January 19, 2017

AFERIM! (2015)

Radu Jude is one of a generation of filmmakers who have put Romania on the map of the wild world of cinema in the 21st century. He was an assistant director on the breakthrough Romanian film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and started making his own features soon afterward. His Aferim! (it translates roughly as "Bravo!") was the big winner of the country's Gopo Awards, Romania's equivalent of the Oscars. Shot in beautiful black and white by Marius Panduru, it looks like a throwback to the subgenre I call "history of cruelty" that was popular in central and eastern Europe during the 1960s. Aferim! takes place at a later time than most of those pictures, during the early 19th century, but it may as well be medieval times. Gypsies (i.e. "crows") are mostly enslaved and in an aristocratic hierarchy most free people aren't much better off. A relatively privileged person is Constandin (Teodor Corban), a kind of constable tasked by his boyar master with finding a runaway "crow" in a neighboring territory. Accompanied by his son (Mihai Comanoiu) he rides arrogantly through the countryside until they track down Carfin (Toma Cuzin) and start back for home.

Constandin is a boor and a bigot, but so's everyone else in this benighted land. In one grimly hilarious scene he encounters a rural clergyman who launches into a long list of ethnic stereotypes stretching from England ("They think a lot") to the Middle East. Human life has little value and "crows" have less. But on the return trip, especially when Constandin gets to relax (and get laid) at a tavern, he starts to warm to Carfin a little. He's still a ruthless, mostly heartless person, as we see when he sells a "crow" boy in a festive market town -- complete with a proto-Ferris wheel -- but he's not entirely heartless, nor is he incapable of treating a "crow" somewhat like a human being. The long tavern sequence is a breather for the audience, too, and it's a relief to see these people enjoying life a little. Even if it seems cruel to have Carfin try to get a coin off the top of a lit candle with his teeth, the spirit of play in the scene encompasses everyone in momentarily humane camaraderie.

Finally Constandin delivers Carfin to the boyar Iordache (Alexandru Dabija). By now, we know that Carfin bolted because his affair with Iordache's wife had been found out. The boyar, a virtual Dracula in his moustache and archaic costume, is determined to personally, publicly castrate Iordache to teach his wife and everyone else a lesson, but Constandin, of all people, pleads for mercy. He only gets threatened for his trouble, while Iordache's poor wife gets Carfin's brutally severed balls rubbed in her face. Jude happily skips graphic detail in this scene, but Carfin's screams tell the story as eloquently as any image might. The moral seems to be that cruelty flows from the top in this feudal culture, and the man on top is tops in cruelty.

Aferim! is a modest masterpiece of juxtaposition, using some of the most lavish monochrome cinematography I've ever seen to illustrate the sordid poverty of old Romania. Some scenes have an almost painterly quality, and others made me think of the Russian Ilya Repin's  paintings of rough peasantry come to life, only greyscaled. You could imagine the film as a photograph of the age it portrays, while color might only undermine its illusion of authenticity, which extends to the art direction and the performances. The whole project is a satiric rebuke to nostalgia for some endangered authentic national culture, shown here to have been utterly squalid not so long ago. It's to the Romanians' credit that they haven't taken the film as an insult, but have honored it instead.

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