The most ignored minority in Europe and most abused victims of human trafficking/hate-crimes, are the Roma (gypsy) people. The majority live in Romania, but are not considered Romanian (an unfortunate etymological coincidence), in fact they are constant object of discrimination, with people going as far as posting signs offering a reward to Roma women who voluntarily got sterilized. The handful of Romas who’ve attained public status and influence in Romania themselves, condemn ethnic Romas and deny any ties with them.
Without sentiment or preaching, Aferim! is a welcome addition addressing Roma slavery. Part Canterbury Tales, part Don Quixote, and part Django Unchained, Aferim!— a once often-used Turkish word meaning “bravo!”— trots across the screen like a minute hand against a 19th century clock of xenophobia. As a philosophizing constable and his son pursue a runaway Roma slave in early Romania, we see the inequities and beliefs permeating the nobility and working class at the time. What starts out as a quest to fulfill a simple mandate becomes a moral quandary.
From the onset, the film does much to maintain distance between us and what’s being seen. Early on, the space between the characters, as well as the cinematic space between the viewer and the objects being viewed, are wide. From the first panoramic shot, the only human contact is what we hear of the past: the plague and its aftermath. When constable Constandin and his son Ionita finally do emerge onscreen, they encounter an old woman carting her ill husband. They berate her, fearing she’s carrying cholera. The long shot here establishes a pervasive outsider-ness throughout the film, where Constandin and Ionita pass through a thorny landscape striated with invisible boundaries between the elite, the working class and the powerless.
When we finally encounter the Roma— disparagingly referred to as “crows”— the camera begins to inch closer to the mistreated outcasts. From today’s perspective, and perhaps it’s a cultural difference too— the Romas were remarkably tolerant of their oppressors, addressing them as “Bright Lord” without a tinge of resentment. Making the dialogue as authentic to the time as possible, director Radu Jude culled proverbs and quotes from historical documents and gathered 20 historians at his script reading for further edits.
Filmed in black & white, the monochrome imagery adds to the barrenness and lack of distinction, underscoring just how mental these boundaries are. However, none of this is heavy-handed or stoic. The objective distancing of the film, bawdy humor and level-headed storytelling keeps the xenophobic, misogynist climate of Aferim! from straying far from its own humanity.