From a distance, Romanian director Radu Jude’s Aferim! resembles a classic American Western. If one examines it more closely, its self-conscious artiness becomes apparent. There are almost no close-ups, but plenty of extreme long-shots in which people are tiny dots in a vast rural landscape. Despite the use of black-and-white cinematography, Jude’s direction owes at least as much to Abbas Kiarostami as John Ford.
Policeman Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) travel across Wallachia in search of a runaway Roma slave, Carfin (Cuzin Toma). The slave has taken off from his noble master, and suspicion is aroused that he’s sleeping with his master’s wife. The two men meet a wide variety of people, including a Christian priest (who goes off on an anti-Semitic tirade), Turks, Russians, Romanians and Hungarians. They stop at a bar/brothel, where the young man is instructed to sleep with a prostitute. His father will pay for it. The dialogue mostly consists of an airing of prejudices. The discovery of Carfin doesn’t end the journey.
Aferim! attempts to comment on the present by going back to 1835 Wallachia. The press notes compare it to Quentin Tarantino, and it does resemble a version of Django Unchained told from the slave-owners’ perspective. While many Americans don’t know that “gypsy” is an outdated and racist term for the Roma, it’s pretty mild compared to some of the language used in Aferim! to describe this ethnic group. There’s even discussion of gayness and domestic violence, seemingly intended to keep the story up to date. The problem is that Aferim! never convinces one that it’s really a portrait of a past almost 200 years distant from us. I’m sure this wasn’t Jude’s intention, but it’s yet another film about how superior we are to those awful racists from the 19th-century. It’s probable that contemporary prejudice against Muslims was on Jude’s mind, although racism against Roma is alive and well in Europe and anti-Semitism still exists among the far right, but he never manages to make the allegorical leap to the present.