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“Aferim!” Explores the Cross-Generational Transmission of Cultural Bigotry

The film follows a 19th century policeman’s search for an escaped Romani slave, exposing the hateful cultural morals of the time.

(Image: Aferim!)

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Aferim!, Radu Jude, 2016

Aferim! – winner of the Silver Bear prize for best direction at the Berlin International Film Festival, grand prize winner at the City of Lisboa Film Festival and an official selection at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival – is a brutal look at the ways hateful attitudes become ingrained as truth.

Shot in black and white and set in 1835, the film charts the multiday search of Constable Costandin and his teenaged son, Ionita, as they traverse the Wallachia region of what is now Romania in search of a runaway slave named Carfin. As father and son move from village to village, forest to forest, they encounter a wide array of people and their conversations and interrogations give both Costandin and the people he questions an opportunity to vent, rant and rave about the perceived cause of their oppression. For the most part, Ionita simply listens and is quickly schooled in the invectives reserved for Romani people (sometimes spelled Romany or referred to as Roma or Gypsies), Jews, women and anyone from outside their ethnic and racial fold.

Costandin holds nothing back and his language reveals his deep antipathy for anyone who is not, like him, a Christian male. Women, for example, are repeatedly referred to as crones, cunts, hags and filthy whores. Jews are said to drink the blood of Christians and make up Satan’s flock, while Romani – enslaved in Wallachia and Moldova from the 1200s until 1856 – are dubbed crows, the Devil’s spawn, “darkies” and thieves.

Aferim! is an important reminder that young people absorb ideas from the adults who surround them.

A roadside encounter between Costandin, Ionita and a robed priest further explicates anti-Romani attitudes, exposing the commonly accepted notion that the Romani were descendants of the Old Testament’s Noah. According to a legend recounted in the Book of Genesis, Noah became enraged at his youngest son, Ham, and, in a fit of fury, cursed his son’s offspring to live in perpetual subjugation. “When Ham spread horseshit on Noah,” an angry father cursed Ham’s lineage to slavery, the priest proclaims, as if this provides an ample explanation – and justification – for the social hierarchy then in place. What’s more, it is the only instance in the film that teeters toward reference to the larger structures that buttress oppression – in this case the Orthodox Church – but it is nonetheless expressed by one individual man of the cloth to a pair of laymen as everyday chitchat.

Upon hearing the priest’s pronouncement, Costandin simply nods. But his hatred for “the other” does not end here, and he utters choice words for the despised Ottoman Empire and Russian imperialists as well.

And then there is masculinity. Costandin worries that Ionita is “soft” and berates him for being “girlish,” at one point questioning whether the boy is truly heterosexual and ready to assume the responsibilities of a “real” man. In one particularly wrenching scene Costandin goes so far as to procure a prostitute for his son, a woman with whom he subsequently also has sex. He further boasts that his travels have afforded him a chance to bed a “cunt” in every town, village and city he’s visited and, presumably as a touch of humor, exhorts the boy not to tell his mother about these exploits. It’s not the least bit funny.

Still, it is worth noting that juxtaposed with some truly vile dialogue, filmmaker Radu Jude has captured great beauty, and the varied landscape of the Romanian countryside provides a stark contrast to the ugliness of the commentary. This becomes even more pronounced once Carfin is captured and tethered to the gendarme’s horse so that he can be returned to the boyar, the aristocrat from whom he escaped. As the story of Carfin’s escape unfolds, we learn that the slave has not only been accused of robbing his boss but is also known to have slept with the boyar’s wife, Lady Sultana. Carfin, not surprisingly, portrays said woman as a temptress, and shucks off his role in the intimacy. This idea – man as helpless victim of female seduction – hits a resonant chord with Costandin. Nonetheless, his sympathy only goes so far and he refuses to free Carfin or help him move underground. Instead, he intends to collect a reward for returning the bound man to his so-called master and makes clear that he supports the caste system that has been in place for nearly 600 years.

It’s a grim denouement, made worse by the fact that the road trip was meant to teach Ionita the ways of the world. Lost in the morass is any reference to white supremacy, or institutional racism, sexism or classism, as if these issues are simply the problem of bigoted individuals rather than reinforced social constructs. In addition, despite minor acts of resistance – there are a few peasants who try to shield Carfin from detection and some who tepidly question the rationale for the era’s intense physical punishment of indentured runaways – most of the characters in the film are meek and follow the expected protocol. What’s more, Ionita is passive and seems unlikely to challenge either his father or the status quo. In fact, he will more than likely join the military as his father has instructed and follow in his dad’s racist and woman-hating footsteps.

It’s a depressing takeaway. That said, as a cautionary tale about the power of messaging, Aferim! (which the press release says means “bravo” in Turkish) is an important reminder that young people absorb ideas from the adults who surround them. The truism tells us that little pitchers have big ears and are easily influenced.

Aferim! zeroes in on the role of parents, religious leaders and community members and asks us to think before speaking, gesturing or taking action. Ionita and Costandin are potent exemplars of why this is necessary.

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