Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Radu Jude's AFERIM! opens: Romania's overlooked entry into the BFLF sweepstakes

It didn't get a nod from the Academy, even as one of the shortlisted films in this year's roundup of Best Foreign Language Film contenders, but Romania's entry nonetheless deserves a look from foreign film aficionados. Its title -- AFERIM! (which I am told translates from the Turkish as Bravo!) -- can only be meant ironically, as there is damned little to be "bravo-ing" about in this movie, its quality notwithstanding. These days, we are most used to films that come out of Romania as tackling one of two subjects: the current and difficult life in this now-post-Communist country or a look at the "bad old days" under the Nicolae Ceausescu regime.

To our surprise, Aferim! takes us back to some even older "bad old days," specifically to 1835, a time when the enslavement of gypsies in Romania was still very much alive and thriving. The film's writer and director,  Radu Jude (shown at right), along with his co-writer, Florin Lazarescu, and all the locations, set and costume people have given us a "period piece" that looks, to western eyes at least, even more "period" than we might imagine (maybe 1735, rather than 1835) -- so backward does everything, especially the characters, seem. But that, or course, would be the point of the ironic Bravo!

The attitudes of the people -- to each other and the world around them are so unhelpful that you might think you'd stumbled into a costume party given and attended by America's current Republican Party. Though you might find yourself chuckling now and again, Aferim! is not really a comedy. It's part satire, part road trip, and part an uncovering of history that many would rather forget. And there is one simply terrific and hilarious little speech about certain countries of the world and the particular thing that characterizes each.

The plot has to do with a brand of "Constable" (Teodor Corban, above) who has been assigned by the town's "boss" (the fellow in that bizarre "hat" shown two photos above and three photos below) to bring back an escaped gypsy slave. The circumstances under which the slave escaped will eventually become clear, but for now the Constable and his nearly-grown son head out to find the slave, while encountering all sorts of oddities along their way.

Casual betrayals by nearly one and all show the world of this time to be populated by folk who find anything and anyone unlike them to be worthless and disposable. Hate everyone, trust no one would seem to be the motto here. The groveling populace refers to the constable (and just about anyone with a little power) as "Bright Lord," and there are a number of these "Bright Lords" whom we meet as the movie progresses.

The black-and-white cinematography (by Marius Panduru) proves an enormous asset, with the camera seeming not to favor many close-ups, particularly in the initial stages of the movie. (This may be fortuitous, in that it helps us keep our distance from all concerned.) The large cast joins happily into the fray, bringing to life this time when life seemed unpleasant and most likely all too short.

By the finale of this Romanian romp, we're once again made aware of the evils of patriarchy and how power and injustice go hand in hand. If many of the subtleties of the film probably went right over my non-Romanian head, I do wonder what its original audience made of this movie: how it was perceived in its home country -- as a comedy, a provocation, or what?

Whatever, it's a very interesting film, a blend of history and unpleasant humor culminating in a grizzly act of macho power that will have males in the audience crossing their legs, while the women roll their eyes and mutter, "Men!" From Big World Pictures and running 105 minutes, Aferim! opens this Friday, January 22, in New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7) and in San Francisco (at the Opera Plaza Cinema).  To see all currently scheduled playdates, click here and scroll down.

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