Aferim! (2015)

A gorgeously shot pitch-black comedy that brings to light something long forgotten – Gypsy slavery, with an interest in deepening our intellectual engagement with Romania and its dark history.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Radu Jude
2015 | Romania | Drama | 108 mins | 2.35:1 | Romanian, Turkish & Romany
M18 (passed clean) for sexual scene and coarse language

Cast: Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Toma Cuzin
Plot: Set in early 19th century Wallachia, when a local policeman is hired by a local noble to find a Gypsy slave who had run away from the noble’s estate after having an affair with his wife.
Awards: Won Best Director (Berlin)
International Sales: Beta Cinema

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: The Projector – Singapore International Film Festival 2015
First Published: 24 Dec 2015
Spoilers: No

I haven’t seen a Romanian film since the uncompromising illegal abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), arguably one of the great East European works of the 2000s decade.  Films from that country are rather rare in these parts.  But my word, Aferim! is unforgettable, curated by the Singapore International Film Festival. 

It is certainly gorgeous, shot in illuminating black-and-white, somewhat reminiscent of the stark, formal beauty of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009).   Like Haneke’s work, it is a period piece, but set way earlier in the early 19th century in Romania where Gypsy slavery was widespread. 

Aferim! tells the story of an ageing policeman who is tasked by the county lord (an extremely despicable man, really) to find and catch a slave who had stolen money and ran away.  The father brings his son along for the mission, looking to impart his values and wisdom in a road trip into the real world. 

Part coming-of-age, part socio-historiographic film, Aferim! is possibly the first motion picture in nearly a century to bring to light Gypsy slavery, an atrocity that had long been forgotten. 

“Fear is shameful but healthy.  It is God’s gift.”

While the cultural notion of Gypsies has continued to manifest itself in different ways in popular culture, their tortuous history remains unbeknownst, perhaps deliberately white-washed, in all senses of the word.

Aferim! (which means ‘bravo!’, and as observed in the film, often used to compliment someone who has captured a Gypsy) is very talky, with entertaining snippets of pitch-black humour. 

But beneath the imagery and dialogue, director Radu Jude (who won Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival) is interested in deepening our intellectual engagement with his country’s dark history. 

It is no doubt an eye-opening film, a historical if also satirical travelogue on the perils of ethnic prejudice, deep-rooted religiosity and absolute authority.  The final act is sickening to watch, but gives Aferim! all of its paralyzing power.  Bravo, Radu, bravo.

Grade: A-




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