In contrast to the minimalist analyses of recent capitalism or defunct communism that characterize the Romanian New Wave, Radu Jude’s Aferim! is set in a past era that might seem foreign even to Romanian viewers, let alone Western audiences. There is no familiar, personal way of relating to the 1830s Wallachia that the movie describes: its historical distance seems somewhat unbridgeable. And yet, the film carefully avoids the decorative tinsel of the historical picturesque: Jude does not follow the social contours of a lost era with some antiquarian craving for authenticity.
Instead, the social world of the movie is eerily small, almost schematic in its simplicity: the only scraps of social life which make up its universe are a travelers’ inn, a landlord’s mansion, and a fair in some dusty Romanian village. These sporadic patches of a scattered humanity are set in ironic contrast to the vast landscapes through which Constable Constandin and his son Ionita must travel in search of runaway Roma slave Carfin. Filmed in a crisp black-and-white, it is this manhunt through a world stripped down to its essentials that provides the film’s main trajectory: from the constable’s hectic search for Carfin to the slave’s capture and cruel punishment.
The manhunt, however, is also an opportunity for garrulous Constandin to cover the barrenness of this desolate world with an intricate maze of voluble verbosity; at any point he is ready to throw in a piece of advice and to teach both his inexperienced son and the viewer the “truth” about this 19th-century universe. Constandin is not alone in his interpretative excesses and loquacious explanations. Throughout the movie almost every character is eager to explain, clarify, and in the end legitimate the social tragedies surrounding them: slavery, patriarchal violence, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, crude racism, or dizzying social inequalities. As a priest tells Constandin, elucidating the structure of this universe: “Every people has its place in this world: the Kikes cheat, the Turks ravage, we, Romanians, work, love, and suffer in a Christian way [. . .] Gypsies have to be slaves, as they cannot think by themselves.” This long xenophobic diatribe is not a furious outburst of intolerance—an inventory of emotional prejudice—but a calm rationalization of the world, an attempt to explain and legitimate the universe in which Constandin, Ionita, and Carfin live. Somehow, despite the crudity of his social explanations, the priest is the paradigmatic intellectual of 1830s Wallachia, its exemplary philosopher.
The beautifully crafted script sets up a vast panoply of these almost endless ways in which religion, folk wisdom, and popular quips help the characters in accepting and perpetuating the violence of a brutal social structure. As Constandin, himself a former revolutionary, remarks: “That’s how the world turns, you cannot change it […] we live how we can, not as we want.” Shared by almost everyone, this permanent fatalism underpins the organization of a static society, whose rules, “law” (pravila), and strict social roles seem grounded in an atemporal design that remains unquestionable for its inhabitants. At the same time, being both victims and perpetrators, Aferim!’s humans are constantly forced to rationalize, through an alembicated mixture of humour and fatalist wisdom, their ambiguous double role. In this way the eventful manhunt becomes a somber analysis of the way in which violence was naturalized and legitimated in some forgotten corner of 19th-century Europe. This triggers the schematic aspect of the film’s social universe as it moves between the few central institutions of this forsaken world: the landlord’s court, the monastery, the inn, the fair.
Fearful of providing an antiquarian cinematic object or a didactic lesson, Jude is not unreflexively describing a historical reality: he is assembling a cinematic apparatus which allows him to prod into that reality’s underlying mechanisms, its basic social structures. Hence his permanent reluctance to fake any illusive mood of historical authenticity. Without taking away the credibility of the historical setting, or even the pleasures and the black humour of an eventful plot, Jude is careful to point out that the film is, in the end, a constructed social analysis, an artificial cinematic experiment. The almost pictographic black and white of the 35mm widescreen is a constant reminder that what we see on the screen happens, in the end, on a screen, and the host of cinematic and literary references that haunt the movie insist on pointing this out. Although avoiding the pretentious cluttered aspect of a Po-Mo work, the film is awash with intertextual allusions: road movies, bildungsromans, American Westerns, and classic Romanian cinema. Seamlessly mixed into a slender, simple narrative, these filmic references are accompanied by a swarm of literary suggestions or sometimes even direct quotes from 19th century Romanian literature. Without diverting our attention from the suspenseful plot, they come to remind us that Aferim! is not so much a mirror of a lost reality, but a complex aesthetic apparatus giving a social radiography of violence, its everyday presence, and its unproblematic social acceptance.
The political poignancy of the film derives from this painstaking analytical effort and its carefully constructed historical distance. From the remoteness of 2016, it is very difficult to understand the character’s confidence in the stability of a world where, as the priest tells Constandin, “Each people has its own place.” We know now that it only took two decades for this world to collapse and slavery to be abolished, hence the strong feeling of ironic defamiliarization which underlines Costandin and Ionita’s trek. But Jude’s historical irony is not at all comfortable: one cannot easily afford an optimistic narrative in which Aferim!’s characters are the cruel but ignorant dupes of progress. The victims of Jude’s movie remain the same: the eleven million Roma living in the EU at the moment are still its most marginalized population. The viewer is forced to watch while this terrible present is constantly hovering over the story’s imagined past.
Similarly, it does not take too much of an imaginative effort to replace the rationalization of violence, volubly displayed by Aferim!’s characters, with today’s public discourse that still depicts the targets of racism as victims of their own culture. Roma, black inner city youth, or migrants are still seen as unwilling to “integrate,” as entrapped in some alleged “culture of poverty” or imagined religious backwardness. From this perspective, the characters’ naive legitimation of oppression has been merely revised and updated for today’s purposes. In the end, the cruel irony of Jude’s cinematic experiment falls on us.
MIHAI-DAN CIRJAN is a social historian based in Budapest, Bucharest and (sometimes) New York.