‘Aferim!’ is the most recent Romanian film awarded at prestigious festivals. Radu Jude received the Silver Bear for best director in the latest edition in Berlin. The strange show gave the viewers the impression of a Balkan version of the story of last year’s Oscar winner ’12 Years a Slave’ by Steve McQueen. The fact that there was slavery in the Romanian society until one and a half centuries ago was a revelation even to many Romanian spectators. Some may have heard about the old Gypsy ‘slaves’, but the term the Romanian language uses is an euphemism designed to hide the cruel reality of a local slavery. Jude’s film wants to show that: the miserable condition of people of the lowers level in the society, destined to a life of hard labour and especially at the beck and call of masters having almost all rights over them. Such as the right to mutilate them for punishment. Although under the law such absolute rights were actually limited, in real life their power was often arbitrary, with no fear of consequences. That’s because many people’s position on the ethnicity of the Gypsy is dominated by a fundamental racism, legitimising in their view he most discriminating attitudes. But the film wants to achieve more than sketch out the dramatic history of an ethnicity. It raises not just local racism, but also misogynism, radical contempt of homosexuals, anti-Semitism and Xenophobia in general. On the other hand, it tackled other ‘national’ manners that are not so honourable – the conformist fatalism also finding its essence in the adage ‘The polenta does not explode’ – subservience avoiding to contest authority, bigoted hypocrisy of a religious belief contradicted by daily attitudes, a moral flexibility that prefers corruption over lawfulness, an abuse of power at all level, from the most common, domestic situations to large scale political contexts.
The film is therefore a cutting satire of a society that is very far from the ideals of the current Western type of democracy. Although it is a historical movie – actually more a rarity in the local contemporary cinematographic landscape – the intention is one of ideological criticism: behind ideals, the current reality shows extremely reactionary mentalities that maintain multiple inequalities and innumerable abuses. Many still deem today that the Gypsies are an inferior and immoral ethnicity, many still treat their wives with the superiority of masters, many still see in religious diversity an unacceptable scandal. In not so many words, a world dominated by endemic violence, for which living together as a society takes the form of either accentuated stratification – generating major frustration – or promiscuity of a generalised party that dissolves everything into an indistinct magma.
The makers of the film chose the form of caricature, thickening up realities appearing as disgusting as they are hilarious. The tradition of caricature is venerable in the satirical culture, but, in spite of appearances, it is a demanding art. Most characters in the movie are caricatural, from the anti-Semite monk to the proud boyar, from the catchpole who reflected on the emptiness of life to the young peasant who was serving her master with an erotic devotion, from the young military his father wanted to be a colonel to the unleashed rioters at the pub. Some of the directing choices are of a nature to enhance the message, such as the hilly landscape where the protagonists on horseback appear so tiny compared to the mighty overwhelming nature, commensurate with their impotence to change anything in the course of life, or the forest scenes where they bewilder seemingly without making any headway, leaving a powerful impression of historic immobilism.
Although it is programmatic, in the form of caricature, the film does not leave the realistic dimension. Like in the case of any historical movie, the question is how faithfully does it depict reality? The Romanian society of 1835 – the year of the story – was in full process of transformation. From the mainly Eastern cultural and political model (combining the Byzantine tradition with the one of the Ottoman Empire), the society was moving to a Western model of French inspiration. Boyars were not all like the one in the film who barbarically castrates his Gypsy slave as punishment for having allowed himself to be erotically drawn to the lady of the house, but some energetically fight exactly for abolishing the slavery of the whole ethnic group, which was going to happen quite shortly. Among the fugitives of the epoch, scared by multiple exploitation – by the boyars, Church, rulers, Turkish or Russian imperialists – were not just the Gypsy, but also many of the peasants. The causes were firstly political and economic ones, and only secondly racist. Although it should not be overlooked that the number of Gypsy slaves, based on some historians’ estimations, accounted for 10% of the population of the two Romanian states. Quite a lot. Unlike the black American slaves, the Gypsy were generally used around the household or for arts and crafts and not exploited for actual agricultural work.
The land misogynism is not, on the other hand, a purely Romanian phenomenon. And neither is anti-Semitism. Like in the entire Christian world, they both received theological legitimacy. Slavery itself had such partisans based on a certain interpretation of Christian doctrine. In the film, clerics are some of the most caricatural characters, with a very narrow and reactionary thinking, often non hesitant to the most reprobate hedonism, with drinking and immoral women.
The weakness of the ‘Aferim!’ film comes exactly from this excessively caricatured perspective for a realistic aesthetics. It is a very good thing to bring out skeletons well hidden in the closet of national history, such as the infamous Gypsy slavery, or openly address the issue of discriminating mentality still so current, but the caricatural excess could create false perspectives because of which we eventually risk missing more responsible approaches. The problem is not that the impression left by the film is too bleak of too discouraging, but that, whilst it does put the finger on some deep wounds, at the same time it drives us farther from the genuine explanations of such social and moral pathologies.