Some of you will go to see “Aferim!” for the reasons most of you won’t. It’s got art-house movie written all over it. It’s more foreign than most foreign language films. It’s an intimate little film but not sexual. It’s set in backwater Romania in 1835. Filmed in black and white, it specializes in evocative wide-angled observation, unhurried momentum, and an unflinching account of the way it probably was for people in that place and time.
“Aferim!” almost feels pastoral, nostalgic … that is if your idea of a simple rural life travels to a yesteryear straight out of the Thomas Hobbes playbook. Philosopher Hobbes wrote that the nature of mankind is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
There’s one scene, the matter-of-fact brutality of which will plunge most people’s eyes into a full body cringe. That aside, the film generally downplays graphic violence, so long as you discount routine scenarios of exploitative feudalism.
The lead character, Costandin, is an early nineteenth century version of a county sheriff. He’s contracted by a regional honcho to find and return a runaway slave. (In Romania, we’re talkin’ gypsies.) Constandin is the closest thing to an enlightened intelligence in the film, though mostly he’s just trying to make a living traversing the countryside in a tough economy. His son accompanies him, seemingly with little aptitude for making his father’s profession his own.
“Aferim!” translates to “Bravo!” It’s a shout of praise for what gets labeled justice in the ways of the world (with an exclamation point so there’s no doubt that it’s just behavior we’re praising). Director/writer Radu Jude steers clear of heavy-handed social commentary. With a nifty sense of humor that contributes to the film’s confident tone, Jude delivers an “it is what it is” story.
For the small audience that chooses to experience this discomforting, albeit conveniently exotic, cultural narrative, “Aferim!” is well-crafted cinematic art.