Sat 3 Oct 2015
What critics and audiences call ‘the Romanian New Wave’ is not that new any longer. Already in its teens it has focused on the present times, and the recent past of Romania – the last decade of the Communist era and the ‘transition’ period the country went through after the fall of the Communism. By doing so it neglected a tradition built into the history of the Romanian cinema – the historic movies. The first grand Romanian movie made more than a century ago was already a historic film, bringing back to screen the War of Independence of Romania in 1877 several decades after the event. The genre was taken over and polluted in the Communist period by many films which not only brought on screen heroic episodes and heroes of the Romanian history but also distorted it on the lines of the National-Communist propaganda of the regime. This may be the reason Romanian directors, producers, and audiences as well avoided the genre for a while. It is only in the last few years that historical themes came back to screens in more significant movies – the war period and the Holocaust first. Now ‘Aferim!’ by Radu Jude goes further back in the past, to the first half of the 19th century. His film (blessed with an important prize at the Berlin Festival early this year) however has also strong and explicit implications in the realities of today’s Romania as well.
Folks who know the history of Romanian cinema and remember some of the films made decades back will recognize elements of atmosphere and quotes. The ‘Eastern’ genre which took the structure of the classical American Westerns bringing on screen local characters or even changing the landscape to the fields, forests and mountains of the Romanian countries was popular in the 70s with the ‘Haidouk’ series but also in the works of Dan Pita (the ‘Ardelenii’ series). The inspired black and white cinematography credited to Marius Panduru and the very conventional generic that opens the film brought in mind the even older ‘Tudor’ by Lucian Bratu made in 1962 which dealt with events that took place 14 years before the year 1835 when ‘Aferim!’ is situated. The violently naturalistic nature of some of the scenes has also its roots in the Romanian literature (Liviu Rebreanu’s novels) which were also brought to screen.
Yet, this film aims more. The story of the local sheriff (let us use this name for the sake of the international audience) and of his son searching for a fugitive gypsy in the forest and swamps of Wallachia is not just a road movie or an initiation story from the perspective of the young lad destined to inherit the profession of his father. It is a deep and cruel reflection of the prevailing attitude not only of the ruling class but of the whole or great majority of the population of Romania towards other nationalities. The story and the characters come in a frontal manner against deeply rooted stereotypes like the welcoming attitude of Romanians towards strangers or the positive role of the Orthodox church in the moral fiber and education of the masses. It is actually a priest who speaks on screen a tirade full of prejudice against all categories of strangers living or getting in contact with the Romanian at that time – Gypsies of course, but also Jews, Turks, Russians, etc. Folks less familiar with the history of Romania should know that by 1835 Romania was still broken into smaller countries under Turkish, Austrian and Russian rulers – so what is seen on screen has a historical perspective. It is however the relation with the present that comes in mind immediately for those who know history and present. Romania as other East European countries have a big social and ethnic problem with the lack of integration of part of their Roma (gypsy) minorities. The roots of this situation lay to a great extent to the slavery practiced on this minority until mid 19th century. Slavery was abolished (in 1855-1856) but prejudices stay.
The merit of Radu Jude is to avoid any excuse or sweetening of the historical facts, while telling a coherent story and creating characters who are not only credible but also memorable. He carefully builds the atmosphere, habits, language of the time in a well documented manner. He is helped by a fine team of actors - Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoiu as the father and son, Toma Cuzin as the fugitive (would have deserved maybe more screen time to give more complexity to his character), and Alexandru Dabija as the cruel but credible landlord. Two of the best actors of Romania from the older generation Victor Rebengiuc and Luminita Gheorghiu appear in short roles, which shows that even important artists were interested to be part of this cinematographic experience. I feel that ‘Aferim!’ is a film that was much talked about since its release, and will be even more talked about in the future.