Aferim!: Slavery Romania Style

B+ Period road movie

Written by Radu Jude & Florin Lăzărescu

Directed by Radu Jude

Racially-based slavery wasn’t limited to the Americas in the 1800s. As Radu Jude’s Aferim! shows, it was common in parts of Eastern Europe while it ravaged souls in Virginia. And the despised, enslaved people were not the decedents of sub-Sahara Africans, but Romas.

Set in Wallachia in 1835, Aferim follows a constable and his teenage son as they hunt down, capture, and bring back an escaped slave. These are clearly not protagonists we’re expected to warm up to. In one of the first scenes, the father questions a woman, insults her, and then becomes livid when she tells him she’s not feeling well (he’s scared of the plague).

Not that he and his son are all bad. They stop to help a priest with wagon trouble (sort of the medieval version of a flat tire). But the priest’s bigotry makes the constable’s seem mild. He explains that the “gypsies” are human, but inferior to Christians, while the Jews are not even human, but the decedents of horrible giants.

Much of the film consists of conversation between the father and son and the people they meet on the road–many of which they consider inferior. The constable talks a lot, often using a coarse and obscene vocabulary. The son is quiet and possibly retrospective. He occasionally expresses sympathy for those they meet–even the Roma.

The word Roma never comes up the film. Like African American, it didn’t exist in the 19th century, and most of the words available to define these people were pejoratives. In addition to gypsies, they’re called crows–a word that suggests that they are black.

You may have noticed that I used the word medieval a few paragraph up. It’s appropriate. Although set at a time when England and the USA were laying down train tracks and stringing up telegraph wire, Aferim shows a part of Eastern Europe that had yet to meet the enlightenment. The economic system was still very feudal, and the Church still controlled society with a violently racist doctrine.

The moral issues become more complicated after the constable and son capture their bounty. He ran away because he had an affair with his owner’s wife. The owner, a powerful aristocrat, found out and the punishment is expected to be horrific. Even the bigoted constable feels bad about what will happen when they return their prisoner.

Shot in widescreen black and white, Aferim uses few close-ups, as if trying to keep us from getting to close to the characters. Based on historical records, the film is studying a (thankfully) long-gone society, not the souls of a father and son. But it’s a fascinating look into that society and well-worth catching.