Aferim!: Seeking Refuge, by Scott Nye
When considering whether a historical film is “accurate” (to whatever extent that may or may not be relevant to the film itself), we often look to the costume and production design, the availability of mechanical or technological developments, to some extent or another the language used, and – if the film is based on a true story – how much of what is depicted actually happens. Less considered are the morals at play. Without wanting to be too overly simplistic, one can generally say that tolerance towards certain races, ethnicities, genders, and nationalities tends to be a less-prevalent attitude the further back in history one goes. Most films sidestep this by giving us a hero who stood up for disadvantaged people, no matter the cost, all the better to comfort the audience that we might do the same. Radu Jude’s Aferim!, a Romanian film about a constable and his son tasked with recapturing a runaway Roma slave in 1835 Wallachia, provides no such relief, trusting instead its audience to navigate those waters for themselves. It’s a film centrally concerned with the lies people tell themselves to assert their own righteousness. It’s also a comedy!
Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) is the sort of figure we love to see onscreen, with some knowledge that he’s about as far away from our social circle as one can be. He’s loud, boisterous, self-assertive, chatty, and voices his innumerable prejudices in very personable ways. One scene simply involves him running through a list of various races and ethnicities and pointing out what’s wrong with them, saving his most vitriolic rant for the Jewish people. He considers himself a good guy, of course, for upholding law and order, and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) seems to be uncomfortably following in his father’s footsteps, often parroting the elder’s baseline points or looking to him for the correct response. Whatever moral awakening either may have throughout the course of the film, they continually come back to these essential beliefs – for Costandin, it is right because it is legal; for Ionita, it is right because those older than him say it is. So much of societal morality in any era is based on these assumptions.
In tumultuous times, such totems become especially valuable – during this period, Wallachia was falling in and out of Russian occupation on its way towards forming Romania; slavery itself would be slowly abolished over the twenty years after which the movie takes place. This is a society very much in transit, but the film never loses sight of its setting. Its characters don’t know slavery will soon be a thing of the past, or that their country will soon be their own, nor should they have much reason to. So they kowtow to the all-powerful Ottoman empire, and those in positions of power (priests, especially, are accorded tremendous respect, which they wield to behave even more abominably than their subjects), and find ways to assert their place within it. Jude (who cowrote the screenplay with Florin Lazarescu) carefully shows the signs of a country changing its conscience without succumbing to the audience-comforting “and then all was right” finale.
Most directly, this is done after Costandin recaptures Carfin, the slave (played by Toma Cuzin). The thing about being an independent contractor (essentially a bounty hunter) in the early 19th century is that you end up spending a whole lot of time with your prisoner on the road back. Carfin may be property, but he is not Costandin’s property, and must be treated with a certain amount of care regardless of what his owner may eventually do. They inevitably get to know him a bit in their journey, or at least see the system through his reactions, and a bit of empathy sets in. But just a bit. Just enough to thoroughly undercut the triumph of their journey when return Carfin to his owner. Until, inevitably, they’re back on the road again.
“Aferim!” translates to “bravo!” for the Ottoman Turkish, and is a phrase regularly traded throughout the film as a way of showing respect and courtesy, but only to those already benefitting from the system. It is used to prop up that system, assert it, and make those in power feel they did something to deserve their station. As such, the title – at once jolly and sharply condemning – is a perfect reflection of the tone of the film, which uses its sharp wit and laughs like a knife.