Blu-ray Review: Aferim!

DVD | Blu-ray
Directed by Radu Jude
Starring: Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Toma Cuzin, Alexandru Dabija, and Luminita Gheorghiu
Studio: Big World Pictures
Theatrical Release Date: January 22, 2016
Blu-Ray/Streaming Release Date: June 28, 2016

The futility of attempting to do good in a world governed by inconceivable hate has been a popular topic in cinema. We have witnessed it all. Good prevails. Bad prevails. Yet the films that ponder on the futility rather than the grotesque or sublime have been all too infrequent. Apparently Romanian director Radu Jude is aware of this, and how thankful we should be because Aferim! is an assured meditation on life and the human spirit.

A downtrodden man, Costandin (Teodor Corban), and his young teenage son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), are walking side-by-side along with their two horses across a vast field. Affliction, evident in his countenance, is definitely plaguing the father. He’s a bounty hunter and proud constable in Wallachia, a tiny village in Romania in 1837 where slavery of Gypsies is the norm, who is hired by a boyar (a local lord), played by Alexandru Dabija.

The constable enlists his son’s help as they attempt to find a runaway slave (Toma Cuzin) who has slept with the boyar’s wife (Luminita Gheorghiu). He’s doing what he has to do. Nothing more or less. “God even looks after worms and we can’t look after each other,” the father tells his son. What a despairing statement. By the time this quote is uttered, Aferim!, which translates to “Bravo!,” will have documented a satirical and tragic dissection of the father’s occupation and beliefs.

This being his third feature film, Mr. Jude, not only satisfied observing the nuances of everyday life, ruminates on the rapid plunge one takes when their character and way of living is degraded and inevitably reduced. This is why Aferim! is as poignant as it is because throughout the film Costandin continuously conducts himself with an aura of importance because he is a constable. He tells stories, uses his supposed power and even prides himself on training his son so he could have a respectable occupation when he gets older. Costandin so keenly sums up life by saying, “We live as we can, not as we want.”

Affirm!, whose actors also play prominent roles in other powerful Romanian films from the past decade (12:08 East of Bucharest, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), is the latest Romanian film to pummel its way into our soul forcing us to examine humanity head-on. It has been a golden decade for this country’s cinema.

Dialogues and stories in Aferim! pertaining to the specific era are exchanged between characters, and various lifestyles and occupations are dissected to offer us a vivid glimpse into a Romanian milieu. Presented in gorgeous black and white images, the film exudes evidence of having fully inherited the characteristics of a fleeting dream, or of a fabled legend passed down from many generations. It is a remarkable film, and its sole purpose is to present to us a journey and the unalterable impact that journey has on the father and son.

Undoubtedly this sounds trite and generic, but Aferim! distinguishes itself from such critiques because of its odd blending of undefinable delight and unspeakable horrors. Being able to address a heavy topic like slavery in an airy and joking way is a testament to Mr. Jude’s talents (though the material surrounding slavery here is just a tad bit shallow). Unlike his Romanian contemporaries, Mr. Jude, who is working from a slightly alternate perspective (his film is based in the mid-19th century whereas other Romanian films are situated in the present), seamlessly interacts with the myriad of mores and emotions of that particular era, and yet making them startlingly relevant.

Rating: ***1/2 out of ****

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