'Aferim!': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Romania's answer to 12 Years a Slave is surprisingly, savagely funny

Romanian director Radu Jude addresses the prickly subject of gypsy slavery with his third feature, a western-style historical drama which won the Best Director prize in Berlin

A harsh history lesson leavened by bawdy humor and classic western elements, Aferim! dramatizes the formerly taboo subject of gypsy slavery that flourished in Romania for centuries, and was only finally abolished in 1856. Handsomely shot in luminous monochrome on 35mm film, director Radu Jude's third feature has just won the Silver Bear for Best Director in Berlin. It was always a strong prize contender based on its striking look, timely subject and surprisingly funny script.

Jude's two previous features, The Happiest Girl in the World and Everybody in our Family, were darkly funny satires about the strained economic and social fabric of contemporary Romania. Both picked up multiple awards at Sundance, Berlin, Sarajevo and other festivals. His new film shares the same sardonic tone but brings a more ambitious scope and more explicitly political resonance. Aferim! opens domestically next month, with further festival bookings likely to follow. It will be a tough sell for overseas distributors, but smart niche players may be swayed by the prospect of releasing Romania's answer to 12 Years a Slave.

Contemporary anti-Roma racism in Eastern Europe has inspired a crop of powerful movies in recent years. But Aferim! digs deeper into the historical roots of this timely subject as Jude and his co-writer, novelist Florin Lazarescu, draw on real accounts of gypsy slavery for inspiration. Crucially, they also manage to make this grim topic both funny and personal, not a dour social-realist sermon.

Titled after an old Turkish word meaning "bravo!", the story takes place in the mountainous southern region of Wallachia in 1835, a time when Romania was still caught in the imperial crossfire between Turkey, Russia and Austria. Teodor Corban stars as Costandin, a boisterous police constable employed as a bounty hunter by local nobleman Boyar Iordache Cindescu (Alexandru Dabija) to recapture Carfin (Cuzin Toma), a fugitive gypsy slave who made a potentially deadly error by giving in to the sexual demands of his master's wife Sultana (Mihalea Sirbu).

Scouring the majestic mountain landscape on horseback with his callow teenage son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) acting as his deputy, Costandin recalls John Wayne in The Searchers, only with the racist and sexist subtext of John Ford's iconic western writ large. He also loves the sound of his own voice, forever sharing his pompous wisdom and salty humor with anyone who will listen. He has a special fondness for bawdy rhymes, crude aphorisms and bitter curses. "May he live three more days, counting yesterday" he sneers after a fractious encounter on the road.

Costandin and Ionita apprehend Carfin, picking up another runaway gypsy slave in the process, a skinny little boy called Tintiric (Alberto Dinache). As they journey home, father and son celebrate by sharing the services of a prostitute at a rowdy inn ("don't tell your mother"). But on learning that their prisoner faces punishment for sexually humiliating his master, Ionita raises ethical questions about returning him. As a compromise, both agree to ask the nobleman for leniency. However, Cindescu disdainfully swats away their pleas before personally enforcing his brutal revenge.

A veteran of various key Romanian New Wave films including 12.08 East of Bucharest and 4 Weeks, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Corban manages to invest his flawed anti-hero with a rough-hewn affability. Costandin may spout racist slurs against Jews, Turks, Russians, Italians and others, sounding like he belongs in a 19th century prequel to Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, but Jude does not judge him too harshly, presenting him as simply a product of his times. There are also solid, unshowy performances from Romanian TV star Toma, and from Dabija and Sirbu, both well-known theater directors. The 17-year-old Comanoiu makes a quietly impressive screen debut too.

Like its main characters, Aferim! meanders a little in its opening act, which is essentially a string of random conversations on horseback. The slender plot, fairly unsympathetic protagonists and steady flow of coarse, slang-heavy Romanian dialogue may also test the patience of viewers expecting a more conventional costume drama. But do not be fooled by the playful, irreverent tone. Behind its attractive surface sheen of lusty humor and ravishing visuals, this Trojan Horse drama makes some spiky topical points about the lingering scars of slavery, feudalism, misogyny and racism.

Production company: Hi Film
Cast: Teodor Corban, Mihai Comanoiu, Cuzan Toma, Alexandru Dabija, Mihalea Sirbu
Director: Radu Jude
Screenwriters: Radu Jude, Florin Lazarescu
Cinematographer: Marius Panduru
Editor: Catalin Cristutiu
Producer: Ada Solomon
Music: Tre Parale
Sales company: Beta Cinema, Munich
Unrated, 105 minutes