The Western is a curious type of film. The genre features plotlines that often feel limited to a short list of possible conflicts drawn up by the genre’s masters of yesteryear. Even from a purely geographic and temporal standpoint, most of its films occur in one specific sliver of space and time. Whenever a film enters the Western canon that attempts to fundamentally rethink the genre, it’s important to take note. Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” made the Western intimate and small. Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Fargo” made the Western wintry, Minnesotan and modern.
Now, Radu Jude (“Everybody in Our Family”) has made the Western Romanian. His film “Aferim!” borrows from the greats of the 1940s and 1950s, and yet it feels especially new. “Aferim!”, which roughly means “bravo!” or “well done!” in Romanian, follows a policeman and his son in 1833 Wallachia, Romania. The pair are hired by the local feudal lord to find a Roma slave named Carfin (Toma Cuzin, “The Treasure”), who ran away from the lord after sleeping with his wife. Along the way, the policeman, Costandin (Teodor Corban, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”), gives questionable guidance to his teenage son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu, a newcomer) and begins to befriend Carfin as he divulges his sexual history with the lord’s wife.
Shot in a beautiful black and white, the film’s Romanian landscapes are stunning. Jude constructs his shots carefully, establishing the mountainous background as if it, too, were one of our main characters. Jude also has a knack for framing, whether in the lord’s chambers or at an outdoor carnival. In both intimate and large-scale scenes, he can immediately establish a textured setting with a deftness that usually takes years of experience to master.
The film is a Western, but to limit it to that genre would be inaccurate. “Aferim!” doubles as a biting and hilarious political satire, showcasing the absurdity of historical discriminatory policies in Romania. That country’s history of Roma slavery is a subject rarely addressed in its nation’s film industry, and for its first major movie on the topic, comedy was a brave decision. But Jude had the right idea. Often, it’s comedy that can force us to confront the most pressing and taboo subjects of our histories. It’s the film’s writing that takes center stage — the Coens or Quentin Tarantino must have served as a particular inspiration, with pointless vitriolic banter being its main comedic feature – but it’s easy to feel like some of the jokes were lost in translation. Of course, no subtitle could ever match the vocal intonation and timing required to land a perfect joke. But here, they come pretty close.
However, at its violent sections and when generally addressing the prevalence of Roma slavery in Romania at the time, “Aferim!” becomes somber. That dour tone is integral to addressing the story with the gravitas needed to confront such a tragedy. The legacy of slavery in Romania is very different from the American perspective. Jude, by necessity, must approach it carefully.
Yet, the film focuses on Costandin who, as a very vulgar and contradictory individual, is a tough sell as a protagonist. In the same sentence, he can pay deference to his lord and denigrate the neighboring lands (Turkey is a common target), yet decry the lousy state of Romania. He’s the least likable character in the film (except for, perhaps, the feudal lord and an incredibly racist priest), as he tastelessly disparages everyone he meets. And yet, with humor as our aid, we see him transform. The comedy may end on a bitter note, but Costandin is bitter with us.