Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review - Aferim!

January 14, 2016

Aferim! – Romania, 2015

There’s just no other way to say it – watching Radu Jude’s Aferim! is a brutal, unpleasant experience. Set in 1835, the film depicts society at its absolute worst – racist, xenophobic, classist, sexist, corrupt, violent, discriminatory – the list of negative adjectives is virtually endless. Legal arguments are given explaining why it is legally permissible for a man to abuse his wife, entire races are spoken of as if they were made up of the most vile and disgusting individuals known to man, and those who should be protecting the innocent and the weak are very much part of the problem. In one particularly ugly scene, a Christian priest rattles off some of the most vile descriptions of both Jews and Gypsies. The latter is referred to as “crows” throughout the film due to the color of their skin, and there is no shortage of demeaning descriptions put before that moniker.

Making the film even more challenging is the fact that it has as its central character a local policeman named Costandin (Teodor Cordan), a man whose verbal vitriol is often so repugnant that it is literally uncomfortable to hear him speak. This is a man who finds legal justifications to defend his participation in human trafficking, threatens people for no other reason than that they are Gypsies, and resorts to violence first rather than as a last resort. He calls a woman whose husband may be suffering from cholera a “filthy plague rat” and is completely indifferent to the pleas of abused slaves so long as it is an authority or Christian doing the abusing. In one scene, a priest argues that Gypsies must be enslaved to prevent them from ruining society, and all Costandin does is nod his head and thank the priest for his enlightening words.

The main focus of the story is Costandin’s search for a runaway Gypsy slave named Carfin (Toma Cuzin), and on this quest, he in accompanied by his son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). While the journey has a practical purpose, it also seems to be meant to be one of those father-son experiences in which the father is provided ample opportunity to espouse fatherly advice and explain how to survive the world in which they live. In the first half, that seems to involve knowing how to fight, accepting inequality, and having a vertical view of the people who inhabit the world. For his part, Ionita nods and does not contradict his father outwardly, yet there are hints that he has adopted more advanced views.

Like the characters Ethan Edwards and Jeffrey Hunter in John Ford’s The Searchers, Costandin and Ionita spend the first part of the film looking for their man. The second half of the film details their journey back, and it is in this half that the film’s central themes become apparent. After all, it is always easier to look for someone than it is to deliver him to a man who may do him great harm or even cause his death. There is even a scene in which Costandin justifies his adherence to law and order that made me recall many of the justifications that were made about slavery in the United States at this time. In the case of Costandin, it soon becomes apparent that he is very much a cog in the machine, someone whose well being depends on his going along with what he sees around him, not standing up to it.

The film is well directed, and its use of rural settings reminded me somewhat of the visual beauty of The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Springs. These were challenging films in which terrible things happened in stunningly beautiful settings, and Aferim! is no different. I also admire the way Jude is not afraid to make the audience uncomfortable or even to dislike the main characters. He seems to be presenting a world void of pure light and dark; everywhere in the film, there seems to be gray, the blurring of good and bad, as if at that time pure goodness was elusive. Jude gets excellent performances from his cast, in particular Cordan and Alexandru Dabija, who appears later in the film as lordache Cindescu. Jude also reveals a mastery of staging crowd scenes, and in many of them there is a palpable sense of chaos and dread. Aferim! is Jude’s fourth film, and I look forward to discovering the other three.

Viewers, I suspect, will find getting through the first half of the film a challenge, for there is little that is as discomforting as having to sit through an endless string of conversations littered with offensive language and hate-filled rhetoric. It many help viewers to know that much of what Costandin says is a defense mechanism, the kind of mask that some people put on just to justify their actions (or inaction) and assuage their guilt. Still, it isn’t easy. The second half, however, is equally complex, but much more rewarding, and there are flickers of humanity even by characters who engage in inhumane acts. I watched the film’s finale in horror, while also despairing at the tell-tale signs of Stockholm Syndrome, road rage, and powerlessness. This is not a film with a happy ending, yet how could it be? Look at the times in which it is set. (on DVD in Region 3; in theaters in the United States on January 22, 2016)

3 and a half stars

*Aferim! is in Romanian, Turkish, and Romany with English subtitles.

No comments: