“I wonder, Ionita,” says a father to his son toward the end of Aferim! (The title translates roughly as Bravo!) “A few hundred years from now, do you think folks will say a good word about us?” Since the film is set in 1835, “a few hundred years from now” more or less implies today; we’re clearly meant to reflect upon how the wanton cruelty onscreen—inflicted by the rich and powerful upon the downtrodden—has persisted over the centuries. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about that observation, but Aferim! manages to sustain interest, over the course of a somewhat meandering road movie, by contextualizing it within a novel milieu: Wallachia, a region of Romania that was then part of the Ottoman Empire (under Russian occupation). Shot in widescreen black-and-white on 35mm, the film combines the structure of a classic Western with the look of Eastern European films from the 1960s, to reasonably absorbing effect.
As is often the case with Westerns, the story is set in motion by a manhunt. The Romani people (referred to as gypsies in the subtitles, though that term is now considered offensive by many) were bought and sold as slaves in 19th-century Romania, and a local constable, Costandin (Teodor Corban), has been sent to retrieve a runaway slave named Carfin (Toma Cuzin) who allegedly slept with his master’s wife. With his teenage son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), in tow, Costandin proceeds to hunt Carfin down, and it becomes clear almost immediately that he views his quarry as subhuman. Once he has the man in stocks and slung over his horse, however, he gradually begins to warm toward him—not enough to set him free (despite entreaties from Ionita), but enough to feel protective. He assures Carfin that he, the constable, will make sure that Carfin is only whipped or beaten, not tortured or killed. But his employer (Alexandru Dabija) has other ideas, even (especially?) after learning that it was his wife who did the seducing.
Co-written and directed by Radu Jude (whose previous features weren’t released in the U.S.), Aferim! boasts the same mordant sensibility as the majority of films that have emerged from the Romanian New Wave over the past decade or so. Corban has appeared in quite a few of these (12:08 East Of Bucharest; 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days; Beyond The Hills; Child’s Pose), and he makes Costandin a memorably repellent yet jocose figure, with a smart-ass remark for every occasion. (“May he live three more days, counting yesterday.”) To the extent that the film has an emotional journey, it’s the story of this man’s very, very slight moral awakening, which achieves nothing whatsoever and doesn’t necessarily look as if it’s going to stick. Jude clearly feels similarly about how much progress Romania (and, by extension, the world) has made since 1835; his pessimism is almost too matter-of-fact to be cathartic. The movie concludes with a horrific act of violence that’s followed by a complacent shrug, and there’s a danger that viewers may shrug, too.